by Susan August Brown
Tango Yesterday and Today
Argentine Tango Basics
Is Argentine Tango the Same as Ballroom Tango?
Is Argentine Tango the Stage Dance?
Attending Tango Classes
Do I Need a Partner?
Learning from Video
Taking Private Lessons
Practice, Practice, Practice
The Family of Tango Dances
Styles of Argentine Tango
At the Milonga (Tango Dance Party)
Useful Tango Terms
A Beginner's Checklist
A Few Internet Resources
Argentina was undergoing a massive immigration during the later part of the 1800s and early 1900s. In 1869, Buenos Aires had a population of 180,000. By 1914, its population was 1.5 million. The intermixing of African, Spanish, Italian, British, Polish, Russian and native-born Argentines resulted in a melting pot of cultures, and each borrowed dance and music from one another. Traditional polkas, waltzes and mazurkas were mixed with the popular habanera from Cuba and the candombe rhythms from Africa.
Most immigrants were single men hoping to earn their fortunes in this newly expanding country. They were typically poor and desperate, hoping to make enough money to return to Europe or bring their families to Argentina. The evolution of tango reflects their profound sense of loss and longing for the people and places they left behind.
Most likely the tango was born in African-Argentine dance venues attended by compadritos, young men, mostly native born and poor, who liked to dress in slouch hats, loosely tied neckerchiefs and high-heeled boots with knives tucked casually into their belts. The compadritos took the tango back to the Corrales Viejos—the slaughterhouse district of Buenos Aires—and introduced it in various low-life establishments where dancing took place: bars, dance halls and brothels. It was here that the African rhythms met the Argentine milonga music (a fast-paced polka) and soon new steps were invented and took hold.
Although high society looked down upon the activities in the barrios, well-heeled sons of the porteño oligarchy were not averse to slumming. Eventually, everyone found out about the tango and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the tango as both a dance and as an embryonic form of popular music had established a firm foothold in the fast-expanding city of its birth. It soon spread to provincial towns of Argentina and across the River Plate to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, where it became as much a part of the urban culture as in Buenos Aires.
The worldwide spread of the tango came in the early 1900s when wealthy sons of Argentine society families made their way to Paris and introduced the tango into a society eager for innovation and not entirely averse to the risqué nature of the dance or dancing with young, wealthy Latin men. By 1913, the tango had become an international phenomenon in Paris, London and New York. There were tango teas, tango train excursions and even tango colors—most notably orange. The Argentine elite who had shunned the tango were now forced into accepting it with national pride.
The tango spread worldwide throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The dance appeared in movies and tango singers traveled the world. By the 1930s, the Golden Age of Argentina was beginning. The country became one of the ten richest nations in the world and music, poetry and culture flourished. The tango came to be a fundamental expression of Argentine culture, and the Golden Age lasted through the 1940s and 1950s.
Tango's fortunes have always been tied to economic conditions and this was very true in the 1950s. During this time, as political repression developed, lyrics reflected political feelings until they started to be banned as subversive. The dance and its music went underground as large dance venues were closed and large gatherings in general were prohibited. The tango survived in smaller, unpublicized venues and in the hearts of the people.
The necessity of going underground combined with the eventual invasion of rock and roll sent the tango into decline until the mid-1980s when the stage show Tango Argentino opened in Paris. Once again Paris was ground zero for igniting tango excitement worldwide. The show toured the world and stimulated a revival in Europe, North America and Japan that we are part of today.
Tango is danced counterclockwise around a floor just like a horse race. Dancers try to stay on the outside edges of the floor and away from the center space. If you were able to look down on a tango dance floor, you'd see dancers move as if floating down a river—flowing smoothly forward sometimes and occasionally stopping for a spin in a shallow eddy.
If you have a background in ballroom tango, just think of Argentine tango as a completely new dance—not as an enhancement of the one you already know.
Watching a performance is a wonderful opportunity to see tango and (hopefully) hear a live tango orchestra. Once you've heard a bandoneon played live, you'll never forget it.
A good tango class should introduce you to the following elements of tango: walking, turning, stopping, navigation, musicality and some embellishments. Tango is a dance based on walking so you must practice this essential element. The good news is that you already know how to walk, you just need to practice taking a partner with you. All great tango dancers work on their walk. In fact, one of the best compliments a tango dancer can receive is, "Look how well he walks!" No matter how experienced the students, I've never seen a good tango teacher start a class without walking exercises.
After you've "walked your miles" you'll learn how to turn, how to stop momentarily on the floor, how to navigate a crowded floor, how to listen to and learn the various types of tango music and how to add your own signature to the dance in the form of embellishments. Because tango is an improvisational dance, you should also be exposed to that aspect of the dance as well. Tango is a dance you create on the fly with another person. It isn't about memorized steps that go together the same way every time. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of tango and is the one that makes the dance endlessly interesting.
An extensive guide to instructional video is available at Video Resources for the Tango Dancer.
Visiting instructors come to town for many reasons. Find out in advance from both the local organizer and dancers if the type of instruction, the style being taught and the level of dance experience expected in the class is right for you. If the visiting instructors are offering classes for beginners, check them out. You never know who will provide just the right information to make something clear.
Early in your study of tango, you'll probably take workshops from as many different instructors as possible. Over time, however, you'll find certain instructors have a teaching and/or dancing style that fits your inclinations and you'll probably narrow down the number of people you study with. You have an amazing variety of teachers and places to dance available to you—worldwide.
My recommendation regarding spending your money on private lessons is as follows (1) start learning in group classes to see if you like tango, (2) attend group classes for at least two months to begin to master the basics, and, (3) attend milongas (tango parties) and dance and watch. Once you've done these things, then look around and see if there is a local instructor you'd like to schedule a private lesson with. Or perhaps a visiting instructor is coming you'd like to study with. Most visiting instructors teach private lessons in addition to any workshops they teach. Keep in mind that different instructors may have different requirements for private lessons (such as requiring you to bring a partner) and may be in very limited supply.
If you don't have local instruction available, traveling for private lessons is going to be one of the only ways to get personal feedback. Here my recommendations are a little different. Search around on the Internet for either local teachers nearby or teachers who may be holding a workshop in a city you're interesting in visiting. Talk to everyone you can about their recommendations regarding whether the teachers are appropriate for beginners, their style, etc. Tango dancers love to talk about tango, so don't hesitate to call or email someone. Then set up a few private lessons spread out over a couple of days. Don't try to pack too much in one day—your brain needs times to understand and your muscles need time to assimilate new movements.
One word of caution about private lessons. Be wary of instructors who approach you about taking lessons from them. Some teachers love to approach beginners and try to make them believe that there is a shortcut to learning tango through private lessons with them. It's been my experience that instructors who tell you how much better you could be if only you had a few private lessons from them are usually just out for your money. There are no shortcuts. Save your money for instructors who are there to enrich your experience of tango and not their pockets.
No matter what shoes you dance in, everyone should add pads to their shoes. I recommend Spenco pads because they are incredibly comfortable, resilient and long lasting. Dr Scholl's foam pads are OK, but avoid the expensive and useless blue gel-filled pads. They seem like a good idea–a waterbed for your feet–but are extremely disappointing.
For more information about Tango
For more information about Spenco Shoe Pads.
The word "milonga" has three uses in tango. It means, (1) the dance milonga, (2) the music you dance the milonga to, and (3) a tango dance party. It's possible for you to dance a milonga to a milonga at a milonga. And believe me, that's a great thing.
As with any evolving art form, trying to pin down the rules is impossible. Every day, new styles come forward and dancers find ways to play with them and incorporate them into their dance. In the past few years, styles known as neuvo and liquid have appeared. Who knows what's coming next? All we know is that it's coming.
For descriptions of the various styles see Styles of Argentine Tango.
Tango music is probably most distinguished from other types of music by two things: the bandoneon and the lack of drums. The bandoneon is a German instrument that looks and sounds like the offspring of an accordion and an organ. In fact, the instrument was invented to provide organ-like music to church congregations unable to afford a real organ. Like a lot of immigrants to Argentina, the bandoneon found its way into the culture and left an indelible mark on it.
You may also notice that there are no drums in tango music. The beat is kept on a bass and the lower register of the piano with (usually) bandoneons, violins and the upper register of the piano providing the fascinating rhythms.
When you start dancing tango, you'll most likely be dancing to the most rhythmic music from the 1940s and 1950s known as the Golden Age of tango. Music from the late 1930s is also great for learning how to hear the beat and feel the rhythm. As you become more experienced, later music (including that of modern tango orchestras) with its more modern jazzy rhythms becomes very interesting to interpret.
To develop your understanding of the music, you may want to consult the guide Music for Dancers New to Argentine Tango. It lists the CDs best-suited for dancers first learning to hear the rhythm of Argentine tango music.
What is a Tanda?
At a milonga, music is played in sets called "tandas." Usually three or four songs are played by the same orchestra followed by the "cortina" (the curtain) which signals the end of the tanda. If you ask someone to dance and they accept, it is assumed that it will be for the entire tanda.
Cortinas are an interesting little detail at a milonga. A cortina is unique to each DJ. Some will select one cortina for an evening and some will use a different one for each tanda. Some are humorous; some are grating on the ears; some are simply beautiful music. In any case, the cortina is supposed to be a piece of music that people know not to dance to. It's your signal to smile, say thank you and (possibly) change partners
How Someone Asks for a Dance
In Argentina, men ask women to dance with a look—a certain glance, movement of the head toward the dance floor or smile that says, "Dance with me?" This can take place from far across the room if the right eyes are caught. If a woman wants to accept a dance with a man, she smiles back and (most important) keeps looking at him while he approaches her. The slightest glance away is usually interpreted as meaning "I've changed my mind and don't want to dance." This system is very wonderful and full of pitfalls. What if the asker is looking at the woman behind you? Did you really see a "yes" or a "maybe?"
Because we are caught up in this Argentine art form, the practice of asking people to dance with the eyes is also followed to some extent. In many areas of the world, however, you may ask someone to dance directly or with your best Argentine eyes. As in the dance, practice makes perfect.
Accepting a Dance or Saying "No, thank you"
Accepting a dance is as simple as saying "yes." You can do this with your eyes—be on the look out for people who ask the Argentine way—or by accepting a direct invitation.
It is also perfectly acceptable to say, "No, thank you." If you accept a dance remember it will probably last for the remainder of the tanda that is playing—three or four songs if you start at the beginning. If either one of you decides that one or two dances is enough, however, either person can simply say "thank you" and begin leaving the dance floor. Once you say "thank you" to someone in a polite manner, the dance with that person is over.
Dancing at a Milonga as a Beginner
As a beginner, you'll either be eager to dance with everyone or hesitant to be seen as a beginner. If you're eager to dance, go for it. Just remember that tango is danced in lanes that keep moving and the more experienced dancers tend to stay toward the outside. If you're hesitant, I can guarantee you that everyone in the room has been a beginner at one time and understands how nerve wracking it can be to look around and see everyone gliding by when you only know three movements. Even someone who has been dancing for only two weeks longer than you have will look like they've been at it for years longer. I can't explain it; it always looks like that.
The way to become a good dancer is to show up and dance. As Woody Allen once said, "98 percent of success is showing up."
|boleo||no translation (a particular embellishment that can be done high or low)|
|caminar||to walk—the basic walking pattern of tango|
|corrida||a rhymthic run (double-time walking)|
|enrosque||a twisting movement during a turn|
|freno||a brake (blocking a foot)|
|gancho||a hook (a type of embellishment)|
|lapiz||literally means a pencil (to draw a circle on the floor)|
|mordida||literally means a "bite" (used when the feet form a sandwich)|
|ocho||an "eight" (part of a turn)|
|salida||literally means "exit," but in tango it's a basic entrance to the dance|
For a more complete list of terms, see Ed Loomis' Guide to Tango Terminology.
1. Know how to ask someone to dance
2. Follow the line of dance and stay in your lane
3. Walk smoothly
4. Keep your own balance
5. Keep the rhythm (even at the expense of executing fancier steps)
6. Be aware of where you and others are on the floor
7. Know how to walk, turn, stop and lead a few embellishments
8. Know how to interrupt a step to keep from hitting another couple
9. Know how to put basic elements together to make a dance
1. Know how to accept or decline a dance
2. Wait for the lead
3. Walk smoothly and walk to the cross well
4. Keep your own balance
5. Keep the rhythm
6. Be aware of others on the floor
7. Know how to walk, turn, stop and execute a few embellishments
Once you have mastered the elements on these lists, you are an intermediate dancer. As an intermediate dancer you will work on how to dance more improvisationally, how to improve your posture and balance, how to interpret the music on a more sophisticated level, and how to combine many basic elements to form new dance steps or perhaps create your own.