Back to School:
A Practical Guide to Social Tango

                The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where
shall I begin, your Majesty?" he asked.

-------   "Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely,
                "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

-  -Lewis Carroll,
                                               Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


Jazz musicians say there are three stages to playing jazz. First, you must learn all about your instrument. Then, you must learn all about the music. And finally, you must throw it all out, and learn to play.

If you've read this far, you probably know I don't have a lot of respect for the way tango is taught today. Most classes consist of copying the memorized steps of local teachers who have little grounding in the basics or the music. And the workshops put on by traveling tango celebrities are usually just as bad. Very few of them are respected, or even known, in the milongas. They market themselves with choreographed performances, and then they teach what that they perform. Learning tango this way is a recipe for disaster for both for the student, and for the community where he or she dances. It fills local milongas with dancers who are eager to show the acrobatic patterns they've picked up in class, and it drives away serious dancers. And worse, it obscures the power and beauty of Argentine tango by burying it under a layer of mindless, pretentious crap that... oops.  Sorry. (Alej warned about having that third Irish coffee.)

The truth is that learning tango takes work. There are no short cuts. Like jazz, you must first learn all about your instrument... and that takes time. It can take years of jostling around the floors of crowded milongas to develop the centered, relaxed way of moving that's necessary to express tango—and it probably takes a lifetime to really absorb and understand the music. But a determined and dedicated student who focuses on the right things can still attain a high degree of competence without moving to Buenos Aires. It takes a genuine love of the Golden Age tangos, and a love for the learning process—but it can be done.

Because I've been lucky enough to spend so much time dancing in Buenos Aires, I think I'm qualified to discuss the first two stages of learning that the jazz musicians talk about. We've already explored the music a little in Chapter 4, and now we'll begin to look more closely at our "instrument". We'll use words, music, pictures, and also video, to get a better understanding of what it takes to turn the body into an efficient tango-dancing instrument.

As far as the final stage that the jazz musicians speak of—the epiphany of finally breaking through and learning to play—I wouldn't presume to give any advice. What we will do in this chapter is explain and demonstrate some of the practical tools of musical expression, and also point out some of the ways the best milongueros use the music. But we won't try to tell anyone how to find the entrega of tango. That’s a journey everyone has to make on his or her own.


"El tango te espera."
                            -Anibal Troilo