In the old days there was a shortage of women in Buenos Aires— but no more. Today, good women dancers in the milongas usually outnumber the men, and a woman needs excellent tango skills to find partners. For both men and women, good tango is in the details. So here is some of the good, the bad, and the ugly of women’s tango.
Good balance begins with good posture... these women are always up and relaxed.
Los Bailarines: Carlos y Nelida, La Tana Fardella y Walter, Alejandra & Alito.
Most problems in tango begin with poor posture. The goal is to stand up tall, straight, and relaxed as you dance, but maintaining good posture can be surprisingly difficult. Not only does correct posture look good, but it’s also the basis of good balance. Poor balance from the woman can be transferred to the leader, and milongueros don’t like to dance with women who pull them off balance. Few people naturally have the right posture for tango dancing—it takes practice. Here’s an exercise:
Stand in front of a mirror, and pretend a string is attached to the center of your head. The string pulls you straight up, like a puppet. Think about being centered, balanced, and tall. Let the string pull you... your vertebrae should straighten, and your muscles should relax. Try to eliminate tension in every muscle, one by one, except for those needed to support your weight. Now, tip forward a little, but don't bend at the waist. Your body should remain straight, but your chest should move forward about an inch or so. You should feel a small amount of weight and tension in the front part of your foot as your weight shifts slightly. Let every bit of tension out of your shoulders so that they drop down as far as possible, and then use just enough muscle to move them back a bit.
Finally, think about your chest. Your shoulders move down and back, but your chest should be “up". One way to think about it is to imagine that if you stepped out from behind a building, the first thing to appear would be your chest (maybe not possible, but use it as a mental image). Try to visualize increasing the distance from your breastbone to your belly button. Your abdominals should stretch slightly, but your back should remain straight. Body and shoulders relaxed, chest up and out, legs straight.
The key is to be able to maintain this posture when you connect to your partner, and to maintain it in the rough and tumble of the milonga. Alej always seems to be able to do it—I don’t know whether it comes from her time as a gymnastics coach, or if it’s just natural. I, on the other hand, always have problems with posture, and I often use a checklist when I dance. I use code words like, “tall”, “chest”, “relax shoulders” or “center head”. I also monitor myself to stay relaxed. This is sometimes difficult to do in crowded milongas, especially when there are bad dancers disrupting the flow. A bit of muscle tension behind a shoulder blade after a night of dancing, or maybe a sore foot or some tightness in the lower back indicates that something is wrong, and it’s time to go back and repeat some posture and centering drills. Self monitoring and the use of checklists, by the way, is common among athletes, and even the pros often need to return to very basic exercises to stay on track and eliminate bad habits. Over time I have begun to use checklists without thinking, and Alej says sometimes she can actually feel me readjust as we dance—but I don’t know I’m doing it.
The best women help their partners by extending fully into the step.
This is especially easy to see when both partners have the room to stride out.
Los Bailarines: Lucia y Oscar (top), Norma y Tonino (right).
Extend the leg fully into the step, and step onto a straight leg. It takes a very long time for both men and women to learn to step smoothly and naturally onto a straight leg. Not only is stepping onto a bent leg sloppy and ugly, it's also inefficient. A woman who reaches into the step with a straight leg helps the man walk, while a bent leg restricts the length of the man’s step. The woman’s torso should be carried forward lightly by the man’s chest, with her leg floating above the floor, ready to touch the floor when the forward motion slows. Whether the man leads a long or a short step, fast or slow, the best women follow easily by maintaining good posture and extending the leg. Finally, stepping onto a bent leg is a poor way to communicate the compás to the leader. A good leader wants to mark his cadence and the woman’s cadence crisply. When a woman doesn’t straighten her leg, the leader is uncertain as to exactly when she has stepped. It gives the man a vague, unpleasant feeling from his partner.
Brush the Knees and Ankles
From L to R: Ruben Montagna leads Myriam Pincen in a side step to her left.
Her right foot swings over to touch her left foot, floats above the floor for an instant...
...and the then swings back to its original position to take the next step.
(Myriam’s right leg is only touching the floor in the first picture and the last picture.)
In the series above, Myriam’s right ankle travels all the way in to close with the left ankle before returning to its original position. She doesn’t leave it hanging out just because it’s near the spot where she will finally place her foot on the next beat. She has the discipline to collect her feet together each time. Whether it’s a side step, a normal back step, or a step in any other direction, your knees and ankles should almost touch as they pass each other. This will center you, and prevent rocking from side to side. If the woman’s feet don’t brush closely past each other, the man will feel it. It creates an imbalance that will pull him to the side. It may be a small imbalance, but when it’s added to each step, it restricts what the leader can do.
Walk a Straight Line
Milongueras walking with precision along a straight line: Nelida & Carlos (top), Gerardo & Graciela (bottom pics).
Brushing the knees and ankles as they pass each other with each step should result in the woman walking back with balance along a straight line. Stepping off the tightrope, even a little, pulls your partner off center as well. Some strong milongueros like to accelerate forward, and it’s especially important to walk a line directly in front of them to avoid being pulled off center.
Keep Your Weight Forward
In the first two pictures Alej’s left foot floats in a small circle over the floor as she stays forward and waits for Carlos.
As she senses that he is beginning to move around to her right, she quickly drops her left foot directly behind her right.
Keep your weight forward, and learn to follow a chest lead. Different dancers use different amounts of separation at different times. Some dancers separate a bit for giros or other figures, and others don’t—but a chest lead is almost always used for moving forward. Milongueros normally don’t lead much with the arms, and the best followers can sense very subtle movements through the chest and torso—in fact this is the probably the most efficient way to communicate the feeling of the music between partners. In the pictures above, Carlos will run over Alej if she doesn’t keep her weight forward and her back straight.