The Basics of Tango

If you’re a dancer, or if you’ve never set for onto a dance floor or a class, just like anything else you can break down Tango into its basic parts. So what are the basics that compose Argentine Tango? The essence, the steps, the connection, the music, all of it boils down to a few very simple principles, which seem even more basic, but in reality they are the heart of the dance.

In a Nutshell

What is the fundamental starting point of Tango? My belief differs from others but many who I’ve spoken to would agree with my own feelings on this basic principle. The starting point of Tango, is walking. Yes that’s right, walking, the most basic activity almost everyone doesn’t even think about. Walking is the easiest and also the hardest part of Tango, and how I try to explain it to be dancers who may be intimidated when starting Tango or dancing for the first time, it’s too just walk. To walk, one step at a time, to walk solo somewhere with a purpose, to walk side by side with someone down a street, and to take that and bring that walk into walking together with someone in front of you.

The basics are just that, and I feel is the perfect starting point. I don’t want others to come into Tango for the first time and have to think about thigh position, posture, engaging their lats, forward energy, pointing feet, heel striking versus toe walking, where their own or their partners axis is, the different parts of the music, or a number of other topics. All of these topics are important, depending on your level and learning speed, they can be introduced very early, but the first thing a new dancer should focus on its just being able to be confident in their walking, their step, their balance, take everything one foot in front of the other and get your body moving.

To show someone that at the basic movement in Tango is walking then giving hints, tips, instruction, I’ve found building the confidence that the person can dance Tango, you give the basic building block and they wish to continue trying and wish to learn more. Explaining that walking, is the easiest and also the hardest thing in Tango and that you’ll be practicing your walk for years or indefinitely can be daunting. By showing your passion and your love for the dance and just walk, seems to light a fire in others, bringing more people back again and again. There is much more to talk about when it comes to walking and Tango, but this is in my belief is that Tango in a nutshell, is walking.

The Embrace

The basic foundation of Tango may be walking, but the other aspect of the dance is the fact you’re dancing with another person. Connecting with someone directly in front of you, might be someone new, or a long term partner, brings a huge amount of challenges. How do you connect with this other person, where are they, where is everyone else, how to move together?

There are many different styles of embrace, and there are multiple different names each each style or preference. All the embraces do have common elements between them, with a few that have outliers. So what are thee elements of the Tango embrace? The elements of the tango embrace are:

Connection (touch)

Some of these terms may seem simple or vague depending on your own definitions.  Each style though has these elements, regardless on if you’re dancing with an open or close embrace, with different intensity, or likewise. So what are these elements for those that are just starting out?

Intention – Sometimes considered a forward lean.  This is presenting yourself with your energy towards your partner. You don’t want your energy to be behind you or directly on top of you, otherwise you will topple away from your partner.

Balance – You’re in charge of your own balance, you don’t require your partner to keep yourself solid.  You may use your partner to keep yourself on axis, you are not relying on your partner to support you. This may be less true with extra intention, but giving your weight for the other person to support fully will have your dances cut short most of the time.

Solidity – This is similar to balance, but this is being sure footed.  If you’re on a foot, you’re solid in you stance and choice of balance.  You aren’t floating between one foot or another, you’re solid and can be directed on said location.

Engagement – You’re using your muscles, your core, your lats, you thighs.  You aren’t limp, you’re slightly malleable, but your muscles are engaged or flexed. You aren’t tense.  There is a line between being present and being over taught, it’s a matter of finding that balance.  You communicate your dance through these muscles.

Connection (touch) – You will be touching your partner, with at least your hands. Usually there is additional points of connection, but it depends on the style.

Confidence – Being sure of yourself and your movements. Even if you might have missed something, trying to correct yourself in the moment will lead to more confusion. Go with what you feel and then focus on the next step. If you’re needing to correct yourself (due to balance, bumping, preventing injury), make sure you take control of the correction and make it happen using your connection to convey to your partner what is happening.

These are basics and common properties of the different styles.  To look into the different styles, there is another section dedicated to them.

Music and Musicality

When most people speak about tango music, it is usually talking about music from the Golden-Age of Tango. For me Tango music is any music you can dance Tango to, which personally I fell you can dance Tango to anything. That depends on your partners and such, but not always a common idea among Tango communities. So instead of going over the different types of tango music, I’m going to give you the basics of the different styles of tango music.  Aren’t these the same thing? Well depends on your own definitions, but you’ll see what I mean.

The styles of Tango music can really be broken down into 3 styles with ~3 classifications.  These styles are: Tango, Milonga, and Vals. The different classifications are: Tradtional (usually ommited), Nuevo, and Alternative.  Each of these usually include specific criteria, but everyone will have their own definitions, here I’ll outline my thoughts on the matter.

Tango – In 4/4 timing, with a steady rhythm that you can hear repeating every 4 measures/beats. This is the majority of tango music played in social dance settings.

Milonga – In 2/4 timing, thus twice as fast, usually including strong accented beats and rhythms. Smaller, simpler steps with less pausing.

Vals – In 3/4 timing, a encourages fluid movements on beats with minimal pauses and very circular. Otherwise called a Waltz.

Traditional – Music from the early to mid 20th century. Usually not including drums or something with more of a bass beat. 1900-1950’s.

Nuevo – Nuevo music is usually described as music with a similar styles as the above traditional music, but usually including more drums or a bass beat into the music.

Alternative – Music that may have the correct timing (not always) but doesn’t sound anything like tango.

There are even more classificiations, some people have Neo-Tango, Electro-Tango, and many more. I personally stick to the above. Trying to keep things simple and more basic.

These next set of terms you’ll hear a lot when it comes to tango music, social dances, and likewise.

Tanda – A grouping of 3-4 songs to be played together.  Should follow a specific feeling, usually same composers, orchestras, bands, vocals, rhythm, something. You’re usually expected if you’re dancing with someone to dance a full tanda with your partner in a social scene.

Cortina – The usually non-dance-able/different music to separate the tandas.  Usually around 25-45 seconds long.

Milonga – Other than the music style, Milonga also is a term used for a Social Dance, a place you dance tango socially. This is not an environment for practicing/critiquing.

Practica – This is similar to a Milonga (Social Dance), but the emphasis is practicing and working on your tango. Can be solo, may have tandas/cortinas, many rules aren’t on a normal dance floor doesn’t always apply here, but most do.

Social Dancing

At the core of Argentine Tango, is the fact it is a social dance, meant to be danced in in an atmosphere promoting of social interaction with other people. There may or may not be drinks, food, seats, but one thing that should accompany Tango, is a sense of community. Some communities are more welcome of new people, some are a little more shut in to newcomers, but it all depends on the location and what type of events you attend.

Depending on where you attend you also see different crowds, and different atmospheres.  A Practica is a much different feeling than a Milonga, which is completely different to a group class, to a private, to a Festival, to a performance show. Many places may also be themed, or advertise particular music. So just attending one event will not give you a good idea as to what you may find at another. If you’re new to a Milonga, many people wont dance if they don’t know you or have seen you, while at Practicas people are more willing to work with you, and group classes usually will help you meet more people and will give you connections at the other events. It is what you make of it, how much you go out to dance, how you choose to socialize. It’s an uphill battle, and with Tango, it’s quite steep and not easy, many people stop short, and those that stick with it are rewarded.