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6 things you need to know before you start learning Argentine tango

Tango marathon Napoli photo by Alexander Verkhovsky

People often say that you don’t find tango, tango finds you. I’m not sure that is accurate in my case since I started taking on Argentine tango and tango themes in my choreographic practice more than 20 years ago. And it has now been more than 22 years since I took my first class . Throughout the years I have danced and choreographed my way through milongas, operas, shows and figure skating routines combining tango with many other dance styles, contemporary dance in particular.

Although I have been asked to choreograph using tango numerous times, I have only recently started getting more and more requests to teach tango or elements of it to amateurs and professionals alike.

But beware. Tango carries with it many facets that may not be obvious to the unsuspecting souls out there. So there are things you need to know before you embark on this journey.

1. Tango takes time

That may seem obvious. Doesn’t any dance require time? Of course but unlike other social dances (e.g. salsa) please understand that it may take more than a year for you to engage in a milonga (a tango social event). The intricacies of Argentine tango do not allow for a fast forward. Be it your new role as leader/follower, getting accustomed to your shoes or getting comfortable with more than one dance partner. A good teacher will let you know when you’re ready. Waiting so long may be frustrating but you will definitely reap the benefits later and avoid the let down of being branded a novice, or even worse ‘bad dancer’….a label you may find very difficult to shake off.

2. Tango is all about walking

Well what a disappointment ! And here you were thinking you would go straight into those ‘kicks’ and ‘flicks', as they affectionately call them on an unnamed TV dance show, with the odd jump and sultry look here and there.

Curb your enthusiasm, all tango steps are derived from the walk and walking, often backwards, forms the basis of tango figures. Learn to place your feet on the floor, transfer your weight, maintain your balance and collect your feet properly and you will be in a good position to move on to ochos, boleos and barridas. The more you practice earlier on, the sooner you will be in a position to develop good technique. Remember, shedding bad habits later on is more difficult than getting it right in the first place.

3. You do need a partner

This is both good news and bad news.

Let’s start with the bad news first. There is an excess of women in tango ( the tango community ) and it doesn’t look like this trend will slow down in the near future. This applies to both classes and milongas. If you’re a woman/follower and you intend to sign up for a course on your own, you will more than likely encounter a situation when you will have to sit out a part of the class since you will have no-one to dance with or you won’t be able to sign up without a partner in the first place.

But let’s say you have a partner. And your boyfriend/friend decides he/she will partner you. Well, that is reason to rejoice but only to a certain degree. You see, in Argentine tango you are expected to change partners as frequently as possible. This is so that you will develop the skill to dance with any partner you may encounter. Also, in class you will be expected to share your partner with others, leaving you perhaps partnerless for some time.

4. There is a leader and a follower

The second class I ever took was part of a week long course. Knowing that all of the participants are amateur/professional dancers, the Argentinian teacher decided to step things up. I was assigned a partner, a professional ballroom dancer. When the teacher demonstrated a short sequence I thought ‘piece of cake’. My partner and I went into hold and I promptly went into the steps of the sequence. My partner looked at me in bewilderment. “What are you doing?” “ Well, I want to help you…”…I said. “ You’re not helping. Wait for the lead”. And that ’s roughly how I learned the principle of leading and following. The hard way.

Following can be difficult and frustrating for any dancer who has never been involved in ballroom or other similar forms of dancing. You cannot develop your own sequences, you have to wait for the leader to initiate them and mark with the subtle nuances of his body. Change of weight, shift of axis, subtle turn of torso…

The leader has to be clear about direction, musicality and aware of the specificities of his or her partner.

Dancing tango is like having a conversation applying rules familiar to both of you. The leader speaks and allows for gaps in the conversation, the follower fills them respecting the space afforded by the leader.

5. Prepare to get close….very close

Although there are different styles/types of tango , you will most probably start off with the milonguero or salon style. Both of these require closeness of a very intimate kind, one that you might not be happy with initially. Unlike ballroom tango where the top of the body and head require a fair amount of back bend, Argentine tango essentially requires full body contact, often with faces, foreheads touching. You may sometimes even feel the breath of your partner. The embrace adds another level of intimacy. All of the above creates a picture of sensuality for the outside world. But only your partner and you will know how difficult it is to move as one without too much constraint (this of course applies to beginners and becomes easier as you progress).

6. Shoes anyone ?

This is a tricky one. Many will argue that, initially, you don’t need proper tango shoes. That women can do with a little heel and men with whatever shoes with a leather sole. The thing is, tango shoes for women are constructed to shift your axis and centre to it’s ideal position for Argentine tango dancing and are usually very supportive in the arch. Very good for the hours and hours you are about to experience. Also I personally think that dancing in higher heels (7 to 8cm) is, in fact, easier than dancing in low heels. If you do decide to get serious about tango, choose your shoes carefully. They will have a big impact on your technique and the number of hours you can stay on your feet.

Men should be fine with softer, leather or suede shoes with a leather/suede sole. Make sure they fit and your feet don’t wobble around in them.

So are you still up for it ? Argentine tango provides many rewards but can also bring many frustrations and disappointments up to the point of being emotionally draining. It will open up a new world in which you will discover new things about yourself and your dance partners. Remember, don’t fast-track your progress, be patient and don’t judge your partners. And never forget to have fun.


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