Breaking Down Tango

I spent my first couple of years in tango taking classes and studying instructional videos—but on my first trip to Buenos Aires, I quickly realized that the things I was learning had almost nothing to do with the tango that was being danced in the milongas. So I decided to see if I could film the milongueros, and learn tango by studying the way they danced. Years earlier, I had learned to ski with Olle Larson, who is one of the world’s best coaches. Olle's approach was to carefully study videos of the best racers, and break down their movements into basic elements that were easier to understand. Then, he would develop drills to help his students master each of the elements—and I thought this might also work with tango.

But breaking down biomechanical movement isn't that easy. Things that look simple, often turn out to be quite complicated, and things that at first look complicated, can turn out to be simple after you examine them. The smooth, simple swing of a professional golfer doesn't look like much... but if you try to duplicate it, you'll soon find yourself lost in a labyrinth of difficulties. For me, the stage tango that was being taught in my classes was the opposite. When the instructors would demonstrate it, it looked difficult because it contained so many different movements—but in reality, it turned out to be fairly simple. Because it consisted of figures performed one after another in a series, with breaks in between, you just needed to memorize each one, and then perform them in sequence. (This is probably why this kind of tango is so popular with students and teachers. It has the illusion of complexity... so it gives students the illusion of progress as they memorize longer and longer patterns.)


Social tango, like skiing, is made up of complex movements that can be broken down
and practiced separately—the only difference is that skiing is more beautiful.


Social tango, however, is more like a ski turn or a golf swing. It consists of biomechanical movements that are performed in "parallel"—that is, rather than being single moves performed one after another, good tango is made up of several movements performed simultaneously. And what's more, these parallel movements change and evolve into new combinations. The skiers above are frozen in place, but they are concentrating on several different things: They must keep their shoulders quiet, and facing down the hill, their hip must be angulated to the inside of the turn, their hands and arms must be forward and up, while their weight is pressed against the front of the boot, and centered on the outside ski as they ride it through the turn (along with several other more subtle things, all done at 40 mph). And in a few seconds, this set of simultaneous biomechanical tasks will rapidly evolve into a different combination of challenges.

This difference between the serial movement of stage tango and the parallel movement of social tango can be seen in part of the video of Gustavo Naveira and Miguel Balbi from page 4:


Stage tango is often danced as a series of discrete movements danced one after another,
while social tango is often made up of layers of movement danced simultaneously.


At first, Naveira may appear to be dancing with more complexity, but on closer examination you'll see that he and his partner mostly perform a series of kicks and leg swings separated by pauses. They are basically doing one movement at a time, posing for a moment, and then performing another one. Now look at Miguelito's double giro (just after Naveira moves out of sight along the back wall). Like a good ski turn, it is deceptively simple on the surface. Miguelito flows into it, and then begins to add several different layers of simultaneous movements that require precise timing and small changes of balance around a shared axis. It may look easy, but if you try it, you'll find that it's about as easy as mastering Tiger Woods' golf swing.

You should be able to see a similar thing by comparing the videos on the previous page. The stage dancers tend to go from one figure to another, while Alej and Ricardo's dancing flows and evolves with the cadences of the music. That's why it's often so difficult to break down and analyze good social tango.

Tools for the Milonga

The truth is that the academic-workshop model doesn't work well for teaching social tango. Classes are a great way to learn the sequences that make up performance tango, but social tango is not danced as a sequence of figures. It’s made up of simultaneous physical movements that evolve smoothly with the music—and that’s not something that can be taught in a class. The way to learn social tango is to acquire the basic skills needed to dance in a milonga, and then slowly put them together by dancing in lots and lots of milongas. That’s where the real education begins. Over time, the basic biomechanical elements will slowly begin to blend together with the infinite combinations of cadence and melody in the tangos.

To be a milonguero is to be a lifelong student of the infinite possibilities of tango, but nothing is more harmful to that pursuit than following some charismatic teacher who focuses on his or her own style, and teaches a series of patterns. The only way to learn tango is to focus on the subtle techniques that allow you find your own ways of expressing the music. But before you can work on basic technique, you need to identify it. So let's see what we can learn from the videos.

First, let's compare Ricardo Vidort and Carlos Copes from the previous page. They're maestros from the opposite ends of the tango spectrum. One is a milonguero’s milonguero, and the other is tango’s senior stage dancer—but they share two common traits: 1. Both maintain good balance and posture when they dance, and 2. Both respect the cadence of the music. So I think we can say that these are the two universal characteristics of good tango. Whether in a show on Calle Corrientes, or a milonga in Avellaneda, they are the things every dancer needs to master.

Beyond that, it’s mostly style—and in this chapter, the only style we're interested in is the one for use in crowded milongas. So we’ll ignore the cat-like walk and the embellishments of the stage dancers, and focus on the basic building blocks that make up social tango. In addition to the two universal elements above, here are the basic elements that we've been able to identify from filming and dancing in the milongas over the last seven years:

1. Stepping sharply onto a straight leg in any direction
2. Understanding how to use a weight-forward posture
3. Being able to take a smooth, surging forward step from a pause
4. Stepping cleanly on the strong and weak beats of both tango an vals
5. Linking runs of consecutive strong and weak beats in corridas
6. Pivoting cleanly on either foot
7. Bending corridas into giros

These are the tools of musical expression and navigation you need to dance in a milonga. There are lots of ways to dance social tango, and you don't need to use all of these elements—but you do need to know them.

We've already covered the things that make up balance, posture and step earlier in the chapter. And we've also taken a brief look at how to step cleanly on the strong and the weak beats of the music. We won’t necessarily cover the rest of the things listed above in order—we may bounce around a little, and combine them at times, but over the next year, we’ll cover them all. Our method will be to try to present each one clearly by isolating and demonstrating it, and then to present a few drills to help you practice. Finally, we’ll show you how the best dancers use them to express the music.

Now let's go to the next level, and look at something that's at the core of musical expression. We'll examine element number 5 from the above list: Linking runs of consecutive strong and weak beats in corridas.