A case may be made for the long checklist a Tango dancer must go through before stepping onto the floor. Issues of posture, musicality and types of embrace occupy an important aspect in the minds of most dancers. Room should be left for enjoyment and gratification.
Many times, dancers forget to check their psychological baggage outside the milonga’s door and issues not related to Tango dancing may affect the quality of a dance or the entire evening. The way dancers approach the exhilarating experience of social dancing is a choice available to everybody.
First and foremost is the music. Endless arguments may ensue sometimes about how good or bad the music being played at a given milonga is. Most of them are pointless as they only reflect the pettiness, envy, mean spirit, ineptitude or plain stupidity of those who are the most vocal in their unsolicited criticism. Show me a “music critic” and I’ll show you a mediocre dancer. When the intention is genuine and the desire is honest, most of us can enjoy a wonderful night out at just about any place.
The time honored most accepted method of inviting and accepting a request for a dance, is the eye contact and a head nod. It speaks highly of politeness, courtesy and above all about avoiding uncomfortable and at times embarrassing experiences. It also affords every dancer the privacy of choosing how to spend an evening. It is unsettling being stalked by overzealous individuals or being put into the difficult situation of accepting reluctantly or declining uncomfortably. In spite of its popularity nobody appreciates being “used.”
Seize the moment
Dancing is a personal issue and the first concern upon stepping onto the floor is the person you will be dancing with. Second on the list of concerns is the traffic occupying the rest of the floor. What you do next is your choice.
If a lady waits for her dance facing the center of the dance floor, the gentleman will be wise to begin the dance with a left side step that will get them moving in the direction of the line of dance. The closer to the outer edge of the dance floor the couple decides to navigate, the less stationary figures they should attempt. Using walking patterns, cadencias, changes of front, forward and back ochos, and elements of giros, the dancers can engage in a series of movements that will take them around the floor with grace and fluidity. A crowded dance floor is the ideal environment for improvisation since the dynamic closing of spaces hinders most attempts to repeat a given choreography.
The Six Count Walk
The basis for moving around the floor is the walk. We like to introduce the concept of walking the very first time anybody shows up to a class. Although there are no rules as to how many steps to walk, using a 4 step walk with a two count cadencia can get anybody moving from the word go.
From the base Body Position 1, (Fig. 1, both dancers chest to chest), the man marks a change of weight to his right by slightly bending his right knee and releasing the weight from the left leg. The lady responds accordingly and transfers her weight to her left leg. On the beat, the man marks the first back step to the lady who responds by stretching her right leg and planting her metatarsus behind her. Once that she has began to move, the man steps forward with his left foot, transfers his weight to that foot and marks the second back step to the lady who in turn plants her right heel on the floor, brings her full weight to that foot and passes the left leg with tone but without power looking for the floor behind her with her metatarsus. The third step is identical to the first one and at the fourth step the man brings both feet together by stepping with his right foot next to his left. The stopping of the man’s forward motion is the mark for the lady to also bring her feet together, stepping in place. Keeping the beat, the man marks a cadencia by provoking a two count change of weight (left-right for the man and the corresponding right-left for the woman) and on the next beat a 4-step walk with cadencia may begin again.
This particular sequence allows the man to begin the next sequence with his left foot (not a requirement at all, but convenient for what follows).
A Change of Front for Him
Whenever the man is ready to step forward with his left foot, he can mark a change of front by moving at the same time that she steps back with her right foot and turning his body to his left. The second step of the change of front will be his right foot to the side which will complete the turn to the left. Finally, turning the body out to his left, the man will step back with his left. All along he must mark the lady’s steps in order to keep her inside his embrace while he is going around her changing the front.
At the end of the change of front, the dancers are in Body Position 2, occupying two lanes, the man at the lady’s right. (Fig. 2)
And One for Her
If the man considers that at this point she has stepped forward with her right (Fig. 2), he may mark the next step so she pivots on her right and opens her left foot to her side while her body turns right towards him. At the same time he brings his feet together with the weight on his left and walks with his right foot into the inside of her right foot producing a displacement of her right foot and a transfer of weight to her left foot. If he marks a pivot followed by a back step, while turning right to bring his body in front of hers and placing his left foot next to her left foot, these are the first three steps of a giro to the right began at the end of a change of front.
Mind blowing you say? It can be if you bring page 16 or 17 of El Firulete to the dance floor. If, instead you learn to identify body positions and “templates,” not only could you also write about them, but actually enjoy executing them. Improvising is dancing on the spur of the moment, making, inventing or arranging offhand patterns and figures from familiar elements or “templates.”
Now You Try It
After the double change of front, the man is facing the lady again, his left foot on the inside of hers. Her right metatarsus is firmly on the floor so when he brings his right leg over and walks on her right, the dancers are on the second step of a salida so it would make a lot of sense to bring the lady in front of him by marking a cruzada when she steps back with her right, so on the next step her left foot can cross in front of the right while their bodies are once again in Position 1, both feet together, chest to chest, etc., etc.
If you care to count, it took 14 movements from the time the dancers began to walk to arrive to the cruzada. First four to walk, two to change weight in place, three for his change front, three for her change of front and two to reach the cruzada. Suppose that here he marks one stationary forward ocho, so she steps forward with her right foot, passes her body weight forward, pivots on her axis over the right metatarsus while hooking her left foot behind, steps forward with her left foot, passes her body weight forward and pivots on her axis over the left metatarsus while hooking the right foot behind. They are back at the cruzada so the whole sequence could start all over again and 14 movements later they could be back at the cruzada. A grand total of 30 steps.
Side Trips Are Fun
The fun of improvising while enjoying great company and great music consists in the ability to take a group of movements and link them together repeatedly, each time altering the order in which the groups are linked together.
Our imaginary dancers have used a 6 movement walk with cadencia, changes of front, salida to the cruzada and forward ochos. Suppose that the second time they go through the walk they use two steps and four cadencias, or three steps and three cadencias. They still use 6 beats but the sequences have a different look. Of course, walking can be expanded to any number of steps and the men can alternate walking in front, to the left and to the right of the woman.
While they are at the cruzada, if the man walks back with his left foot after marking a forward ocho for her, they are both for all practical purposes at the same Body Position that they were at the end of a change of front (Fig. 2) so he could break the return of the forward ocho by opening her to her side marking a change of front for her and repeating the sequence explained before at the end of his change of front.
What About Me?
Native Argentine Tango dancers understand from the word go that there are two fully complementary roles required to accomplish the feat of dancing a Tango between a man and a woman.
Perhaps elsewhere that is not so easy to understand, because good teachers and role models are hard to come by. Copying the skeleton of the dance and showing it repeatedly in front of people only makes people wonder why there seems to be only one person in a couple that is having all the fun while the other just “follows and follows while making mistakes all the time.”
It only takes a dime to make a Xerox copy of a page of a bestselling book, but that does not a writer make. Yes, it takes two, a man and a woman, each one responsible for finding their own axis, capable of displacing their bodies in unison and keeping a comfortable posture. The man provides a secure space with his embrace for the woman to move with confidence and elegance. The woman responds to the dynamic changes of the space provided by the embrace by displacing her body into the changing space using her feet as support, but not as the driving force.
This is a lot to be said about Tango dancing, but it leads to the conclusion that work and understanding are necessary to properly benefit from the endless combinations that the capacity to improvise allows a couple to create.
Exercises that involve walking, turning, pivoting, help keep the body used to the specific moves so characteristic of the Argentine Tango. Learning to displace the upper body with confidence and allowing the legs to follow the natural path in which those displacements will take them is also important. Everything we do on a straight line we must do on a curve, both to the right and to the left.