To Decorate, or Not to Decorate

Tango embellishments are called adornos in Argentina. An adorno is a decoration that can be added by either the man or the woman, and one of the decisions a social tango dancer must make is whether or not to do them. The best-known adornos are boleos, ganchos, sentadas, and the leg swings and sweeps done by stage dancers. But they also include small foot movements, like toe taps, or small patterns traced on the floor. Should you do them... and if so, how much?

There’s no rule against adding embellishments to social tango, but for me, there's something a bit contradictory about them. If you accept the premise that a milonga is for sharing the music between two people, rather than for performing, then what's the point of adding decorations to entertain someone who may be watching? I suppose the answer may simply be that they're fun, or that they provide a way for the woman to participate more actively. And when they're done well, they can be an additional way for either partner to express the music. But many people do embellishments just to show off, and I'm afraid instructors are sometimes the worst offenders. I think they often do them out of ego, and as a way to fish for students—which means, of course, that their students pick up the habit of over-embellished tango, and the cycle continues.

Anyway, we have lots of film of the Buenos Aires milongas, so I decided to go through it, and see if I could find some embellishments. I ended up looking through a lot of video, but I found very few examples of people doing them. The best one I have has already been shown in Chapter 5, but I'll repeat it here:


Here's El Chino doing a beautiful adorno by making small circular motions with his foot during a giro.
He doesn't do them very often—this is the only one I have on film, and it's the only one he did during this tanda.


I don't do adornos, and I don't especially like to watch them, but the small work of art El Chino inserts into this giro is truly beautiful. He uses it right at the end of the tango as a subtle way of expressing his feeling for the music.

I had to look through a lot of video to find another embellishment by a milonguero, and one finally turned up in one of the earliest pieces of video I have. It's in a clip of Alejandra and Ricardo Vidort practicing together 7 years ago. I was only going to show a 5 second segment, but I hadn't seen it in years, and after I watched it a few times I fell in love with it. It's back when Ricardo was strong and full of energy, so I decided to include the entire tango. You'll need to look very carefully to find the adorno, because it only takes half a second. It's about halfway through the video, where Ricardo traces a quick rulo (curl) with his left foot to stay in the compás. (My apologies about the bad sound) Here are my two favorite people in tango, dancing together to my favorite tango:


Really want to learn tango?  This is all you need.


If you really want to understand how to dance tango, this is the only video you'll ever need. It's all here. This is what it means to have the music "inside".

There are several different ways to look at it. First, there's the whole picture. Notice Ricardo's upright posture, and the way he keeps his head, arm, and torso still as he surges with the music. Look at the way he slows, pauses, and then accelerates again. Front, back, and side, efficiently using all the available space, and letting the sentiment of the music pull him around the room. Not too much, and not too little—only what he needs to follow the natural flow of the orchestra and the inflection and cadence of Vargas' voice.

If you want to dig a little deeper, block out the upper bodies, and concentrate on the feet. Notice the sharp way Ricardo steps into the floor to mark the compás. He begins simply, and then adds complexity as he varies the way his foot contacts the floor. Sometimes he freezes for a moment to let Vargas finish a phrase, and then starts a corrida to bring in different combinations of the weak and strong beats. The more I watch this video, the more it seems like Vargas and D'Agostino are following Ricardo's dancing, rather than the other way around. Check it out—it's like he's conducting the orchestra with his feet.

This tango is about saying goodbye to the way of life in the neighborhoods where Alej and Ricardo grew up. Vargas' words are about them, and they are part of them. Ricardo never received a lot of recognition, but every time I see him dancing in these old videos I miss him more, and I realize even more what a great loss it was to tango when he died.

I know... the sound on this video is horrible. You'll probably have to turn up the volume way up to even hear it, but Adios Arrabal is the best there is. It's right from the soul of tango. If you're not already familiar with it, you might want to go back to Chapter 4 where you can hear it more clearly, and familiarize yourself with the words. Then, if you come back and watch the video while concentrating on the music, Ricardo's natural expression of this strong and beautiful tango might have more meaning, because there's just no way you can dance like this without understanding what the music is about.


Now I'd like to present the other side of the coin. While the milongueros in the above videos were dancing in the relative obscurity of the BsAs milongas, a group of other well-known Argentines was touring and representing tango to the outside world. Here's an example of three of the biggest names in tango at that time: Carlos Copes, the Dinzels, and Osvaldo Zotto. They were the headliners at a couple of large workshops in the U.S., and here's some video from their classes:


Carlos Copes, the Dinzels, and Osvaldo Zotto (with Lorena) teaching
tango in the U.S. in the late 1990's.


The three couples in this video are all very prominent and successful... and before we begin, I'd like to say it's not our intent to ridicule people or say negative things on this site. From the little I know, they are all nice people, and the last one, Osvaldo Zotto, was especially nice to me in a workshop where he took extra time to help me with my posture. However, they are all professionals who are paid to travel the world to teach and perform tango, so I think it's fair to offer an opinion about what they are doing.

I guess the first thing I would say about the dancing in these videos is that it's kind of... creepy. Instead of standing up with their chests out like milongueros and stepping into the music, the men creep around like cats. They walk in a soft, bent-legged way that doesn't have any energy or harmonic rhythm. It doesn't even seem like part of the dancing—it's just a way for them to move to a different place on the stage, so they can do more embellishments. The other thing is the way they move their heads and arms around. They keep glancing at each other, or down towards the floor, like they're not sure what to do with their eyes. And because they do a lot of separate figures, their connection is always changing and flexing. In the milongas the good dancers keep their heads, arms, and upper bodies still, so for me, all the head swiveling and arm movement is distracting.

I have tapes from two different tango festivals, and they're both the same—just a series of different instructors demonstrating patterns like these, with some clips of lavish stage productions thrown in. Some of the demos even have words along the bottom of the screen, or a droning voice in the background reciting step patterns: "Back ocho. Salida cruzada... contra paso... caminar with media vuelta... boleo combination."

The last couple, Osvaldo Zotto and Lorena, are beautiful and talented dancers, but I think they were relative beginners at the time these videos were shot—and they make a common beginner's mistake. The music they're dancing to is Una Emoción, which is a powerful tango that tells an important story (Chapter 4, page 3), but their dancing isn't connected to it. During this short clip they pause a couple of times to stare at each other, and you can practically see them planning the next choreographed series of embellishments. Both the music and the words of Emoción have a structure. There's an introduction that builds dramatically to Campos' first line, “Vengan a ver que traigo yo..." This is an important place in the music, and if you're dancing, you need to do something with it... but notice what happens. They pause about two beats before it occurs, stare at each other for a second, and then launch another pattern. They dance right through it, and the beginning of Campos' words are buried several steps into their choreography.

It doesn't seem like it, but I must have come a long way in tango. When I first came to BsAs and began filming, I was fresh out of the kind of workshops shown above, and they didn’t seem that bad. But now they seem almost comical. In the second video on this page, Ricardo and Alejandra weren’t trying to create any kind of great art. They were just fooling around, making mistakes, and having fun—but their dancing has a passionate, breathing, porteño feel to it. It's genuine, alive, and musical. Many of these old tangos really are masterpieces. They were written and played in a timeless way that says something, and every good milonguero and milonguera I've ever seen understands them and dances to them with respect. But the dancing they sell in these workshops... I don’t know. It's like they see tango as just a way of strutting and showing off.



Comment by Derrick Del Pilar — June 11, 2008

The new page on decorating tango makes a good point--why "embellish" social dancing for an audience? I do think that, in the U.S. at least, women aren't comfortable with the thought of entrega—of really surrendering to and following the man, so that's why they want to do embellishments, however subtle. It is their way of taking a more "active" participation in the dance. And, if may I be forgiven for saying so, many leaders in U.S. are so far out of the compás and musical expression that toe taps might be the only way a lady who really listens to and feels the music can stay in the music. That's rather sad, actually...but a lady actually said that to me at a milonga in San Francisco this past March.

I also think you unintentionally showed how good adornments are "pulled" out of milongueras by the music—there are several in the video of Ricardo and Alej that you didn't mention; the most prominent (and yet subtle) are right when Vargas sings "Madrecita, yo fui un reo..." Alej does two quick sharp beats in front of her standing leg before taking the back steps that Ricardo leads. Also, Ofelia does a slightly larger version of that kick after the giro where El Chino does his rulo. Totally musical and beautiful and subtle, and so different from the extravagant paradas and caresses we are used to seeing stateside...

Comment by Xiaosong (Shanghai) — July 27, 2008
Ricardo was a regular sight at my local milonga in London when I first started to dance tango. A sweet little man, albeit a little frail. He didn't dance much but always seemed to be in a good mood. That was when the notion of milonguero entered my mind! Then the news of his death came a year or two later. We played a list of tangos entitled 'viejito' dedicated to him that week, with most people dancing to it, myself included, without realizing the falling of one of the most brilliant stars in tango. How sad it is that we can only marvel the magic of this giant of tango now on videos!