Putting the tango on a solid base
Tango is a social and cultural manifestation of the city of Buenos Aires which was first a way to dance whatever it was they were dancing to around 1878. Gradually it developed into a distinctive way to dance the primitive music, played by ear, by trios of mobile street musicians. During the formation period of the dance, it was a manifestation of masculine bragging and a way to gain the favors of a layer of females who because of the impurity of their blood, had to make a living dancing for a fee at the seediest hangouts of the scariest elements of the criminal underground.
So, don’t let anybody fool you with the fable about men dancing with men at the beginning. To dance what they called Tango in those forsaken days of the last score of the nineteenth century, was a way of life for the male sediment of the society to establish a reputation as tough and rough and compete for the attention of the better and raunchiest female dancers. A matter of phycological and biological need.
Eventually the economic boom of Buenos Aires trickled down to extend a blanket of asphalt over the wilderness of mud, weeds, and human waste that served as playground for the primal Tango dancers. Forced to walk on firm ground they probably suffered from foot aches, swollen feet, and bad ankles, as they tried to adjust to the new shoe wear fashion courtesy of the economic boom. Somewhere between the crowded tenement they called home and the nightly hangout some called cantinas, or bars, or general store, they started walking with a painful strut that almost made them look effeminate, so they covered that up with an upper counter sway of their body as if to make sure that everybody saw them tall and defying, only noticing their arrogant and defying stance, overlooking the sore feet.
That’s how the porteño walk may have evolved and made its way into the way to dance the Tango at the end of the nineteenth century. It had begun to make inroads into the center of the city, courtesy of the Europeans who found the provocative and erotically charged choreography irresistible during their period of highest decadence.
Meanwhile, a burgeoning middle class, product of the education of the sons and daughters of the original immigrants, began to influence the way the city continued to grow and expand. Money was flowing into the country thanks to ever growing exports of primary products, and when money talks everybody listens. Those who didn’t have it as a result of their social birthright, became creative to get it in a variety of ways, the commerce of sex being by far the most popular choice. Find a need and fill it, is the motto of most motivational sales training seminars. Riding on that wave of prosperity the Tango continued to find an identity. Its sounds began to be preserved on music sheets, since the new generation of musicians, trained in conservatories, could read and write what they played.
In the mid 1920’s the structure of the music changed dramatically. The original 2×4 rhythm was transformed into a 4×8 measure. The new composers, influenced by the French romanza, heralded their work by claiming “Tango is also music.” The old guard ofmusicians and dancers claimed that “church music was not suitable for dancing.” The great Tango divide ensued with orchestras led by the influence of Francisco Canaro, Roberto Firpo, Juan Maglio Pacho and others who continued to cater to the dancers, while the sexteto tipico devised by Julio De Caro and supported by the works of Juan Carlos Cobian, Pedro Maffia, Enrique Delfino and Francisco De Caro, became the standard formation for the new guard groups which saturated the night of Buenos Aires with their ever growing repertoire. Between the 1920’s and the late thirties, the sexteto tipico and the De Caro school were the seeding grounds for the greatest Tango musicians of all time: Osvaldo Pugliese, Anibal Troilo and Carlos Di Sarli just to name a trilogy that supported the greatest graduating class of Tango directors of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s The dance took a dive during the Depression years and the subsequent mourning period that followed the tragic death of Carlos Gardel. Actually it was Hollywood and New York, with their money, movies and records that muscled their way into the consumer preferences of a new generation of Argentinos.
Towards the end of the 1930s, dancing became popular again, this time with an intensity that has never ceased since. Society had changed, the city had changed, social mores had changed. Dancing Tango for the enjoyment of it replaced the old compadrito’s need to do it for survival. What provoked the change was the music, or better the rhythm. The nostalgic, melancholic and sentimental cries of the bandoneon in a 4×8 measure, were replaced by the fastest pounding and urgent digitation of fingers on the keyboards and buttons of pianos and bandoneons and the nervous picking of the strings of a double bass.
To take advantage of the contagious rhythm and the addictive beat, new forms of dancing were created by young innovators who saw to add the participation of the woman into the dance. Turns, displacements, leg hooks and flicks were to change forever the way couples danced Tango. A whole structure of navigation routes, and creative interaction between men and women conformed to the needs of the crowded salons of the center of town as well as to the clubs of the suburbs where ample space was available. But regardless of the size of the dance floor, any milonga that deserves to be called as such was always crowded like a New York subway at rush hour.
When the first foreigners landed in Buenos Aires with their choreographed Tango taught by traveling show dancers, locals couldn’t have been more astonished if Martians had been spotted hanging from the Obelisco. Today they welcome visitors, and they even attempt to communicate in English, four o’clock, meet at studio, teach you tango.
Meanwhile a whole generation of dancers have mushroomed over the planet, and even in Buenos Aires you’ll find “beginners” obsessed with their feet, and oblivious to the bruises they leave on the legs and feet of those around them not fast enough to get out of their way. In a morbid twist of fate, the twenty first century “compadritos” exaggerate their way to dance to cover up the fact that they don’t know how to do it properly.
About logic and common sense
Having being endowed with two legs, the human species adapted quickly to walk without the need to think on which leg to move next. It was always the other one. Having our eyes in front of our face, there are three directions on which we can focus our attention. In front of us, behind us, and at either side, left or right. We can actually move in those directions (forward, side, back) without having to turn our bodies into the direction of motion. If we did that then we would always be moving forward.
As kids, we learned to walk, rather march, to the beat of a drum. First it was the stern look and deep voice of an intimidating elementary school teacher who made us march back into class after recess; later it was the chanting crowd at our first soccer game jumping up and down while singing nasty limericks about the families of opposing team players; then at the tender age of twenty a mean looking Army drill sergeant transformed us into men by making us march up and down the asphalt lanes of boot camp. As a result of that, our bodies have gotten used to move to the rhythm of “left-right-left-right” with the precision of a metronome, and to stop at attention, feet closed together, body upright, chest forward, tight butts.
Thanks to the simplicity of the first musicians that began to create the rhythm of the Tango, its beat can be walked, yes you guessed it, by going “left-right-left-right.”
If men get comfortable with carrying a woman in front of them surrounding her with a safe, gentle and firm embrace, and if women get comfortable and accept letting themselves be carried around by a man who moves them to the beat of the music while navigating the floor to the beat of the same music, then we have the base for a wonderful experience. It is called Tango dancing.
The Base and the theory of creativity
From May of 98 to March of 99, we were hired by the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco, to teach a Tango lesson every Monday evening at their plush Top of the Mark night club. The task was simple enough. We had one hour to get totalstrangers, tourists, people who probably never again would show up for a drink on a Monday night, comfortable enough to be able to dance Tango later that evening to the sound of a live orchestra.
Soon after we started, a growing number of Tango dancers started coming earlier to join in the class. They were intrigued to see first time dancers moving around the dance floor, enjoying themselves and having a good time.
For quite a while we had noticed in some Tango teaching videos, that the translator mistakenly referred to the basics every time the instructor would mention la base. For us it was clear that the concept was to have a point of reference, a road map, a navigational route from which figures were nothing more than momentary detours. Once the figure was resolved, the dancing would resume at same point of the road map. As a teaching tool, having a structural base for navigating the dance floor from which figures can be considered an interruption or a side trip that bring us back onto our route once the figure is resolved, was a very powerful concept.
As a matter of logic we decided to combine all the possible unique movements available using both legs and the three possible directions where we can move to, into a pattern that allows the couple to travel around the dance floor. We called it, of course, The Base, and it is a combination of six unique movements that repeated to the beat of the music can get most people dancing in a very short time.
Know your base
The first move of the base (Figures 1,2 and 3) is a lateral displacement to the men’s left. The couple can open to the side by using one of their legs while the other one is firmly on the ground supporting the whole weight of their bodies. This allows the extension of the free leg so the foot can be placed, and space is created for the bodies to shift to when the move is completed. Starting to the men’s left gives both dancers a clear view to where they are going so unexpected bumps or collisions are minimized.
This lateral move to the man’s left, offers the man the possibility to make changes of front before continuing, by having the woman swivel on her right foot. It is also a move where boleos, calesitas, and planeos, can be set up as a way to alter the normal sequence of the base. An important concept as improvisation becomes part of the learning process from the word go.
|Figure 1||Figure 2||Figure 3|
On the second move (Figures 4 and 5) the dancers will use the other leg to move in the direction faced by the man. The man’s upper body turns ever so subtly to his right facing his partner while supported by his left hip. His right leg is placed right of her right leg. Turning their upper bodies with a counter body movement sends the woman’s left leg back in line with her right, naturally keeping both upper thighs close and legs slightly crossed in the natural porteño look. Confusing words like collect, rub your knees, keep your ankles together, walk like a cat, etc. become inoperative, freeing the dancer from the hanging side of ham syndrome, which makes the legs heavy, conspires against balance and requires that they learn to lead and follow to compensate for their lack of improvisation techniques.
|Figure 4||Figure 5|
The third move (Figures 6 and 7) is another forward step for the man using his other leg. In this case it is his left so his upper body counter rotates slightly to his left. This action places him straight back in front of the woman. It is at this point on the base that the
normal trajectory can be interrupted by not counter turning to the left. Instead, the man moves the lady back while her body is still slightly turned to her right, and then brings her in front of him by crossing her left leg over her right. It follows then that the cruzada
position is marked not automatically executed as the crowd who considers the Tango the “eleventh dance” of the ballroom circuit wrongly teaches it. Here perhaps it is where the major difference is between Argentine Tango as an improvisational dance, and the
ballroom style version using the “lead and follow” method. You are, of course, entitled to dance the Tango in any way you please, as long as you are aware that there is a difference.
|Figure 6||Figure 7|
The fourth move (Figure 8) begins with both partners in front of each other, and it involves a second lateral opening, in this case to the man’s right. For this move to be executed under total balance and body control, the previous one (as always) must be finished by ending with the body weight on the legs that will provide support for the bodies to be able to displace laterally in the direction of the free leg. As both dancers open to the side, the man will stay open (both feet on the ground) long enough to place her on her left leg, and then he’ll close ready for the next move.
|Figure 8||Figure 9|
The fifth move (Figure 9) is identical to the second except that the traveling direction is reversed. The man goes back while the woman advances forward. The counter body motion is also the same with the man slightly rotating his upper body to his right to face her. Since the navigation duties still remains with the man, he must make sure that he begins to extend his left leg back first, to create space for his displacement and for her forward advance. He uses his right forearm to keep her in front of him avoiding the bad body position known as “lady in the man’s armpit.”
The sixth move (Figures 10 and 11), as you may now guessed, is identical to the third one, except again that the direction of travel is reversed for both dancers. This is also the end of the base, as both dancers are once again in front of each other, weight on the man’s right and the woman’s left, ready to go around again.
|Figure 10||Figure 11|
Letting the bodies do the dancing and maintaining complete connection all the time, the lateral moves allow for changes of front for both the forward and the backward moves, providing the dancers with a very effective, efficient and simple way to dance around the floor. As this becomes a natural way to navigate, each position affords the opportunity to break the sequence with natural figures (cruzada, forward and back ochos, cross feet salida, giros, etc.) that end always in one of the six stages of the base. The dancers can then resume navigating without the annoying effect on the flow of the dance floor caused by the Eight Count Basic, Salida to cruzada, Tango close, and the execution of figures out of context.
We have found that working la base (side-forward-forward-side-back-back), and understanding the concept of breaking the sequence with natural figures at each position, builds a very high degree of confidence from the word go for both men and women. They are free to dance immediately, learning how to listen to the music, rather than spending wasteful time resorting to memory to guess each other’s move. Connection is rapidly established, as dancers realize that both must contribute 100% of their attention, their balance, their axis, and their bodies for the sake of an enjoyable spin around the floor. It is also a very powerful tool for the veterans who continue to be chained and shackled to the lead and follow method, but are offered an opportunity to dance the Tango the way it is done in Buenos Aires.