image courtesy of Kris Hotvedt and Vista Grande Design
by Stephen and Susan Brown

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 Improvisation

Fluent 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 Watching

You 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

Structural Elements of Tango