Chapter 1   Leave a comment

Stand up straight, embrace your partner and walk…

In the land of the do-it-yourself and the cult of self-reliance, those of us who decided to learn to dance the Argentine tango are constantly lectured on the “unstructured and improvisational aspects of this urban dance,” and then we are immediately bombarded with an endless array of steps, figures and Spango, a list of tango names that are supposed to help the English speaking students memorize steps and patterns better. Adding to the mystification of the “unstructured and improvisational dance,” are the myriad of traveling “teachers” who carry suitcases full of steps, judgments and ego. At the local level, there are a few methods and systems in circulation that contribute to the bedlam that most “beginners”, “intermediates” and “advanced” level dancers face on a daily basis.When Humphrey Bogart asked Lauren Bacall how does one whistle, she responded, “put your lips together and blow…” Had he asked her how do you dance the Tango, she might have said, “stand up straight, embrace your partner and walk…”

Yet, after almost ten years since the Argentine tango fever caught this nation by storm, the general proficiency and the overall quality of the social dance leaves a lot to be desired. Everybody is a performer at heart and the local milonga is the stage to make the dream come true.

Americans are an independent lot, quickly given to instant gratification with a penchant for fixing things that are not broken. As a result of that, the important aspects of systematic learning and the hard work that goes along with that, are easily overlooked. In the few cases where a syllabus or courses have been developed, the tendency has been to catalog a lengthy list of steps and figures. They are then are used to pigeonhole people according to their capacity to memorize and repeat the steps and figures using a ranking system similar to the ones used by the American and International Ballroom community.

If we accept the fact that the Argentine tango is an urban social dance that has been in existence for over 100 years, and if we acknowledge the fact that throughout several generations of dancers the core concepts and elements of the dance have only changed as society mores have allowed more freedom of interaction between men and women at the social level, then we may open our minds to a series of concepts, vocabulary and structural forms, that in many different ways, we have learned at one time or another from some of the most talented and gifted dancers and teachers from Argentina.

Putting aside the silly jealousy, envy and down right competitiveness among the masters and the journeymen that follow them, (traits that, if used with caution, you’ll see soon are a necessary ingredient for the attitude required to absorb the Tango in your organism) we are able to rescue fundamental concepts that compiled in a didactic context, may form the basis for a “dancer’s manual” of sorts. To that extent, in instances where specific concepts or ideas identify a particular individual we will give the appropriate credit.

The basic structure of the Argentine Tango dance

At the very core of the dance structure, we may define and identify four distinctive set of movements: the Salida, the Caminata, the Giro and the Cierre. Each one will have variations, substructures and exceptions but as we pick apart each one of these elements we will discover what Mingo Pugliese calls “the embodiment of the Tango”. That is, out of a finite number of recognizable body positions for the couple, it is possible to improvise a countless number of patterns, steps and figures.

The Roles Dancers Play

During the learning process, both men and women must understand that their responsibilities on the dance floor are quite different. Firstly each one must assume control over their own balance, which translates to finding the correct axis in order to develop the most comfortable posture. Second, both the man and the woman must learn and understand the concept of marking (La marca). This concept is unique to the exhilarating experience of improvisation on the dance floor and unfortunately for many confused dancers in this country, is commonly replaced with the ballroom concepts of leading and following. The confusion has been aggravated by some Argentino teachers who don’t bother with pinpointing the radical difference between marking and leading and following because of expediency, selfishness or ignorance of the conceptual language differences.

A Thesaurus search of the verb “to lead” will produce the following partial list of alternatives: to guide, to usher, to steer, to drive, to direct, to conduct, to escort, to precede, to go before…

We ask the men, regardless of experience, when was the last time you “led”, “drove”, “ushered”, “went before” your lady partner on the dance floor? According to Rodolfo Dinzel and others who corroborate this concept, the woman always moves first and the man follows right behind (the notable exceptions are the not-so-gentle-men who charge ahead with their feet, dragging the women like a sack of potatoes. They are actually “leading” the lady to believe that they care little for their partners).

The Three Steps of Tango

One of the understated facts of dancing Argentine Tango is the availability of four feet and four cardinal directions where the couple can move. Simply put, there are only three steps in Tango: the Side step, the Forward step and the Back step. The direction is relative to the orientation of the upper body.

Step Aside

A side step is typically shoulder wide and in the direction of either shoulder. In other words, it is a lateral movement that begins with the leading foot extending right or left, followed by a body weight change to that foot and ending with the unloaded foot coming together with or without another change of weight (this will be dictated by the next movement).

Being forward

A forward step requires similar mechanics only that the leading foot advances in the direction where the upper body is pointing. Once that the leading foot’s metatarsus has found the ground, the body weight transfer begins with a slight flexing of the leading foot in order to “pull’ the body weight to its axis. This avoids the “bouncing effect” that occurs when the body is “pushed” by the trailing leg. Once the weight transfer has been completed, the heel of the trailing foot is off the ground and the trailing leg is relatively elongated. Then, and only then, the forward step is completed by letting the trailing foot “fall” next to the support foot. At this point both knees are together and slightly flexed ready to continue.

Know When to Back up

A back step is executed in the reverse order. First the leading foot moves back in the direction where the back of the upper body is facing until it finds the floor with its metatarsus. Then, as the heel touches the floor, the leading leg “pulls” the body for the weight transfer at which point the trailing foot “falls” next to the other ready for the next movement.

A Position of Strength

The position where one leg is slightly flexed with the foot completely on the ground and the other leg is elongated with the heel off the ground is perhaps the one most likely to be in use most of the time while dancing. Should somebody enter the room and take a still photograph of that position, it would be impossible to guess whether the dancer is in the process of stepping forward, stepping backwards, or in the middle of a left or right hand turn.

With these three steps a couple could dance in straight lines or in a box, going forward, sideways, backwards, sideways, etc., etc.

In order to turn one more element is necessary: the swivel or pivot, which is a rotation of the upper body along the vertical axis of the supporting leg and executed by flexing the knee, lifting the heel of the ground and spinning on the ball of the foot.

A sequence consisting of a forward step, a pivot on the leading foot followed by another forward step is the most popular Tango figure universally known as the Forward Ocho.

Likewise, a sequence consisting of a back step, a swivel on the supporting leg with both feet together followed by another back step is commonly known as a Back Ocho.

Finally, we’d like to quote Pablo Pugliese: “the Tango begins with the posture and finishes in the legs”. There is an anatomical and a psychological reason for paying attention to posture. From an anatomical point of view, finding a comfortable embrace helps the enjoyment of the dance.

The psychological aspect involves a positive winning attitude. The dancers must believe they are the best they can be.

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Posted January 7, 2009 by Alberto & Valorie in Tutorial

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