There is so much more to tango, so much to love, to learn.

             Here are some thoughts toward the desire to better understand tango

Learning to Dance Argentine Tango Outside Its Cultural Milieu

by Stephen Brown

[image courtesy of Kris Hotvedt and Vista Grande Design] Many of us who begin to dance Argentine tango have no experience with the culture and begin to learn the dance in a cultural environment that is alien to the dance.  That places us at a disadvantage in learning to dance tango authentically—where authenticity might be defined by what would be accepted in Buenos Aires.

To some extent searching for authenticity as prescribed by a group of distant people may seem to be a pursuit for small returns.  How much better to ask, what qualities would make dancing tango a transcendent experience?  As my own experience with the dance has grown, however, I have found that tango has developed as it has in Buenos Aires precisely because many people found this form of the dance takes them to the inner tango where they find a transcendent and sublime experience.  The authentic forms of the dance consist of moving to the music, engaging in rhythmic play, developing a heart-to-heart connection with our partner, and spontaneously creating as the dance floor and our skills permit. 

Finding Authenticity

In Buenos Aires, tango is so ingrained in the culture that even someone who doesn't like tango knows a lot about it.  Many porteños (citizens of Buenos Aires) grow up with an inner sense of tango—hearing the music on a daily basis, knowing the rhythm of the music, and implicitly understanding that the essential elements of the dance are improvisation, moving to the music, engaging in rhythmic play, and developing a heart-to-heart connection with one's partner.  Because these porteños come to the tango with an implicit knowledge of its essential elements, learning the steps and figures can be sufficient for them to develop the ability to dance tango authentically.

Those of us who learn outside this frame of reference are dependent upon our instructors to a degree that is unfathomable to most Argentines, including those Argentines who regularly teach tango to foreigners.  We must learn to hear the rhythm of the music before we move to it.  We must understand that tango is an improvisational dance that engages the intellect, but is expressed from the heart.  In short, we must understand the craft and the heart of tango before we create the art of dancing it.

Taken outside its original milieu, however, much of the available instruction in Argentine tango conveys only the craft.  It unintentionally conveys the view that the dominant style is salon executed in a relatively open embrace, perhaps with a few fantasia or nuevo elements, and that tango is largely danced through the execution of memorized figures that are based on an eight-count basic.  Only a few instructors and a few instructional videos try to convey the improvisational nature of tango.  Few instructors and no videos attempt to convey an inner sense of tango—that is, moving to the music, engaging in rhythmic play, and developing a heart-to-heart connection with one's partner.

For those of us outside tango's original cultural milieu, finding our way to the inner tango is largely a personal challenge.  Trips to milongas in Buenos Aires can be helpful, as can be working with an instructor who is capable of bridging aspects of the cultural gap that separates us from authenticity that makes tango transcendent and sublime.  Building a collection of tango music for social dancing, listening to it regularly, and learning to move to the music without a partner can also be helpful.  Perhaps the greatest help, however, is simply understanding what elements might be missing from our dancing and/or the instruction we are receiving and looking for them in our own hearts and experiences.

Learning to Dance Argentine Tango Improvisationally

by Stephen and Susan Brown 

[image courtesy of Kris Hotvedt and Vista Grande Design] Argentine Tango Is Improvisational

Stage performances of Argentine tango are typically choreographed, and choreographed tango can range from ballet with elements of tango to tango with elements of ballet. In its purest form as a social dance, however, Argentine tango is highly improvisational. Drawing from their knowledge of tango's conventions, dancers construct phrases as they dance rather than reproduce pre-set patterns. This degree of improvisation allows the dancers to navigate crowded dance floors, as well as to express themselves in a non-verbal manner.

Beginners typically get their first taste of improvisation by choosing patterns from a limited set of previously mastered figures. Choosing patterns from a variety of figures, some of which are closely related, represents a somewhat greater mastery of tango and more improvisational freedom. Choosing patterns from a big variety of figures, many of which are closely related, further increases the degree of improvisational freedom. A much greater mastery of tango and more improvisational freedom is found in the ability to break off patterns and switch to others without hesitation. The highest degree of improvisational freedom is found in choosing individual steps without regard to any pre-determined patterns. 

Developing Improvisational Skills

Fluent improvisation requires a considerable mastery of tango's vocabulary. As the dancer develops a greater knowledge of tango's vocabulary, the ability to improvise may come naturally or it may need to developed. Improvisation does require a bit of magic, but to a great extent improvisation is explainable, analyzable, and doable.

Nearly all of the steps, figures and patterns utilized in social Argentine tango can be constructed from underlying structural elements that might be considered the theory of tango dancing. These structural elements include walks, turns, sandwiches, embellishments, and structural connections. Developing a thorough understanding of these structural elements can greatly help a dancer learn to improvise because the knowledge provides a pool of steps that can be dipped into as needed. Understanding may come from continued exposure to tango, but it can also be learned and nurtured.

No single approach to improvisation is the truth, however. The truth is in the dancing itself. Jazz great Charlie Parker once said, "Learn the changes and then forget them." In dancing Argentine tango, the goal is to get beyond the steps, figures, patterns, and theory to pure dancing expression.

Great improvisational tango dancers are not thinking ocho, ocho cortado, molinete with a swirl close, or sixth step of the Pugliese turn. Nor are they thinking parallel foot, double time, cross foot. The great dancers have internalized the information to the point they no longer have to think about much at all. They have learned how the steps, figures, patterns and structural elements feel on a crowded dance floor. 

Finding the Magic

On a crowded social dance floor, intuition is an important part of improvisation. With spaces appearing and disappearing, dancers have a relatively brief time to react. Consequently, navigation relies heavily on intuitive decision making, rather than a deliberate sorting through the possible options before making a decision.

In this context, learning to improvise is largely a thinking process in which the concentration of the conscious mind is used to educate the unconscious mind about how tango is danced. Dancing tango socially is an improvisational exercise in which the conscious and unconscious minds work together to create a dance from the options one has learned. Relaxing and enjoying the moment helps open the channels to the unconscious mind and better enables one to dance in a creative flow.

Improvisation is not purely a mental exercise, however. It also relies heavily on a mind-body connection. The required movements must be learned in the body, as well as the mind. Be aware of what your eyes see and your body feels as much as you focus on the mental aspects of the dance, and you will get beyond theory to a point where you can flow in the dance. With an open heart, aim for a state of grace and communication with your partner and others on the dance floor, and the dancing will flow out.

When we dance Argentine tango on a crowded social dance floor, we take the steps the floor offers, moving from one open space to another. When large spaces open up on the dance floor, we may begin to execute one of the more space-consuming figures we know that has few familiar exits. Dancing this way, we find it completely possible to dance with a special partner on the most crowded dance floor, surrender to the music, execute simple steps, bypass the calculating mind, not crash into anyone, and enjoy the moment in the most exhilarating manner. 

Musicality and ImprovisationFluent improvisation requires musical movement. Build a collection of tango music and listen to it. The collection need not be large. When possible, listen actively and practice moving to the music without a partner. In addition to moving to the beat, find other elements in the music and move to them. Learn to move in musical phrasing separated by pauses or other closing elements. 

Improving Improvisational Skills by WatchingYou can improve improvisational skills by watching the better tango dancers in action. Try to watch unobtrusively at milongas and practicas. Also consider looking at demonstration dances on the many instructional videos that are available, particularly those demonstration dances that are not intended to draw explicitly on the figures taught on the video. In watching, look for the beauty in the way the figures and patterns have been constructed and the ways the structural elements fit together. Also watch how others move to the music. Are they dancing to the beat, or to other elements in the music? What kind of phrasing do they use, if any? 

Tango Instruction and Improvisation

In apparent contrast to the demands of learning improvisational skills, most tango instructors teach figures and patterns. Only a few teach the underlying structure from which steps and patterns are constructed. The common approach may not seem like the most direct route to developing improvisational skills, but those who teach step patterns have produced many fine tango dancers who have good to excellent improvisational skills. Some of their students have developed an intuitive feel for the structure of tango simply through exposure to many different figures and patterns, and they began to improvise without any formal training about structure. For these dancers, formal instruction on the underlying structure of tango probably would have accelerated the process of learning improvisational skills and gotten them to fluency sooner.

Rather than regard the two approaches as mutually exclusive, we see them as complementary. We have found that understanding the structure of tango greatly increases the ability of dancers to learn new figures, as well as to improvise. Dancers who have developed a knowledge of the underlying structure of tango find instruction in figures and patterns more useful. For them, studying steps and patterns can become a process of learning how the masters use elements from the structure to put patterns together. The pedagogic process is similar to learning jazz music theory and then studying how Miles Davis or John Coltrane played.

When studying with someone who teaches Argentine tango through figures and patterns, learn the steps, figures and patterns exactly as they are taught. Look for the beauty in the way the figures and patterns have been constructed and the ways the structural elements fit together. After learning the new figures and patterns, look for ways to vary them. Soon aspects of these figures and patterns will become part of your unconscious vocabulary.

Unless you attempt to reproduce the figures on the social dance floor exactly as you learned them in the classroom, you are unlikely to do so. The conditions on the floor will be different than in the classroom. More importantly your life experiences are different than your professors'. As Nito Garcia has said, "Bailas como sos." (You dance who you are.)

Skills for Improvisation and Navigation

Openness to Exploration
Recognition of Options
Knowledge of Tango Music
Navigational Devices

 taking steps back
 use of compressed basic
 use of walking steps
 use of moving back ochos
 use of connection between back ochos and cross foot walking

Knowledge of Structural Elements of Tango
Knowledge of Figures and Patterns
Use of Embellishments
Elements of Composition

 combinations that fit well together


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Structural Elements of Tango

Walks (Caminatas)

 parallel foot, in line
 parallel foot, outside right
 parallel foot, outside left
 cross foot, in line
 cross foot, outside right
 cross foot, outside left
 arrastres or barridas (drags or sweeps)

Turns (Giros)

 forward ocho
 backward ocho
 giro with sacadas
 molinete (with lapiz)
 forward enrosque
 arrastres or barridas (drags or sweeps)
 change of axis steps
 change of direction steps

Sandwiches (Mordidas)
Embellishments (Adornos, Firuletes)
Structural Connections

 basic step as a hallway
 basic step as a turn
 parallel and cross foot walking
 interchangability between back ochos and cross-foot walking