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Argentine tango explained for beginners

Argentine tango is an improvisational dance that arises from the unique connection between two dancers. Argentine tango can vary between passionate playfulness, temporary stillness and explosive expression. Key elements are the right posture, mutual contact and movement according to the music. Clarity on the part of the leader is expected as well as sensitivity and alertness on the part of the follower. The leader guides his partner while constantly offsetting the accompanying music to the available space on the dance floor. He gives directions with his chest, arms and right hand. Often a follower can be seen dancing with eyes closed. It increases her sensitivity.

The leader must be aware of the steps that he would like the follower to take. Therefore he must have his repertoire of tango figures in mind while dancing. There are several tango dance figures are described on this website, especially for the leaders who are new to tango dancing. The lady should be familiar with the tango figures too, so that she has a rough idea of where her partner's steps may lead her. Still, the lady should not try to anticipate the next step. Following is remaining sensitive and staying alert.

On this site tango figures are described by step pattern diagrams. A step pattern diagram is a schematic dance step representation displaying a limited number of aspects. The main aspects are feet placement, movement of the feet and timing of the movement according to the beat of the music. The position of the chest is an important aspect that is not covered in the step pattern diagram. Watching tango movie clips on YouTube will complement the insight provided by step patterns. Still, dancing lessons are necessary to acquire a good command of Argentine tango dancing - and especially one's posture, as it often requires specific attention and advice of a dance instructor.

How does a tango dance begin?

In a split second three things happen in succession:
> the man gives with his body an impulse towards the lady as an announcement that the first step (forward, in most cases) is about to be taken
> the lady responds with a preparative to move backwards, indicating her awareness, and making room for the man by starting a step (backward)
> the man senses the response of the lady and begins his first step (forward)

In order to provide a proper preparative it is convenient for the lady to know by which foot and according to what timing the first step will be taken by the man. The leader indicates this by shifting her weight to either her left foot or her right foot. Weight shifting is initiated by a subtle cadence (in other words: wobbling a bit). The man will lead her first step to be taken with the foot without the weight on at that time, both engaging in a common cadence with the rhythm of the music as a shared experience.
Each step is to be executed clearly and precise. Complete each step and transfer weight before commencing the next step. The standardized ballroom tango technique prescribes that steps should be made with the heel of the foot touching the floor first. Argentine tango uses the standing leg to push off, the free leg reaches with almost a flat foot, turned out slightly and inward tilted towards the intended spot on the dance floor. This way you are less likely to shift your weight too early, and it enables you, if necessary, to retract the step.
You don't need your arms to dance, except to communicate with your dance partner. If you feel like you have to use your arms to navigate across the dance floor, you're probably doing something wrong. It is sufficient if the leader invites the lady with his torso to take a step in the direction he wants to lead her.

And how does a tango dance end?

At first you will aim to end in the same position as at the start: 'position cero' (see image on the left). This, of course, depends on the music. After the last note, no more steps are made. But as fantasy serves many creative ending poses will emerge (like the image on the right).

tango start and end position tango ending pose

Interaction between leader and follower: macho or muse approach?

Various forms of interaction circulate on the dance floor. These forms range from the macho approach (taking the word "leader" the most literally) to the "muse" approach according to which the leader is more of a facilitator. According to the macho approach the man determines 'what' and 'when' and the woman completes "how". A more democratic approach is the lady being the 'muse' of the leader. Muse's signals can vary from subtle suggestions to clear invitations to which the leader can respond by giving room or temporarily being a follower. Mutual sensitivity allows leader and follower to team up together in their shared improvisation.
Neither approach is by definition right or wrong. It just depends on what you're most comfortable with in relation to a specific dance partner. Both approaches have the same goal: to let the lady shine on the dance floor and for her to enjoy the dance!

Before the dance begins: the 'embraza'

Prior to the dance the dance couple engages into an embrace (embraza). The leader offers his left hand and waits for the right of the lady, followed by her left arm. He let her choose the distance. The leader has the lady in his arms as if she were an expensive delicate sculpture. At the same time he makes her feel relaxed by his calm appearance. As many contact points as possible are created by the right arm of the leader and the follower's left arm. A relaxed yet present left arm of the leader holding the right arm of the follower completes a good connection making it possible to follow and respond promptly and clear. The right side of the faces are opposite to each other.
If the upper bodies touch each other, it is called a close embrace. A tango couple in close embrace is almost like one body on four legs. If the upper bodies don't touch, it is called an open embrace. Once chosen, the embrace doesn't change during the dance. Both partners should maintain good forward body posture at all times including a degree of tension in the arms and upper body still leaving some freedom of movement. While the upper bodies stay orientated towards each other throughout the dance, the legs enjoy more freedom of movement. Torsion of the spine allows for this.

When are you ready to go to a milonga (tango dance event)?

To answer that question you have to ask yourself: do I master the basic tango skills?
As a leader you have to be able to ask someone to dance according to the tango etiquette. The lady should know how to accept or decline.
While dancing you have to be able to follow the line of dance and stay in your lane. Smooth walking, keeping balance and rhythm are also considered to be part of the basic skills. It's important to be aware of where you and others are on the dance floor as well as being able to anticipate and knowing how to interrupt a dance figure to prevent a collision with another couple. Finally, regarding the dance itself: know how to walk, turn and stop, and be able to lead a dance by putting the basic figures together including a few embellishments.

This page has been reviewed on 12 October 2014