“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Glossary of Tango Vocabulary

No alphabet required. You can:

  • use the search functionality of your browser on the current page by keeping the Control key pressed and then pressing the F key,
  • or simply search the entire “Tango Secrets” site (also reachable from the menu above).

Structural Elements of the Dance

Spanish term English term Meaning
abrazo embrace  
bailar tango (el baile) to dance tango (the dance) walking together on nice tango music
caminar to stroll, to walk The most essential and at the same time the hardest part of the dance. See walking.
la marca the lead (marcar = to indicate) The communication of any step happens between the leader's and follower's upper body before (and also during) every step. See leading and following.
giro turn What happens when one dancer doesn't step and the partner keeps on stepping around the non-stepping dancer. The non-moving dancer will pivot on the standing leg. It can be the leader leading the follower around him, or the leader walking around the follower. This walking around is mostly done with a molinete.
traspié   An extra step at double rhythm, typically half as long and thus a chassé step. If partner doesn't do it with you, the walking system will be reversed.
ocho “ocho” (ocho = eight)  
ocho adelante forward “ocho” Two consecutive forward cross steps.
  • If partner doesn't move, accompanies them both (meaning the embrace moves sideways because partner steps along in same direction) or counters them both (partner moving in opposite direction), you'll pivot 180° in between these steps.
  • If partner does move differently, this pivot can differ up to 90° (more or less) from 180°!
  • Dissociation needed is also between -135° and 135°, and at the very least between -90° and 90°.

It is imperative that the upper bodies remain connected. Common mistakes are:

  • the ocho-doer losing connection due to insufficient dissociation and thus “pivoting” the upper body too and as a result doing the ochos too slowly and on his/her own;
  • the leader using only his arms, and by doing so inviting for the previous mistake.
ocho atrás backward “ocho” Two consecutive back cross steps. Same comments as with forward ochos.
ocho cortado interrupted eight (cortar = to cut)
ocho milonguero “ocho” of the milonga dancer In very crowded milongas, steps will be small, and back cross steps and front cross steps will become backward and forward cross steps rather than normal length backward and forward steps. Pivoting of the lower body isn't necessary anymore. Ochos are reduced to cross steps really. Sometimes called a lazy ocho because of this.
sacada “sacada” (sacar = to take out)  
apilado in shared balance (apilado = on a heap)

A little amount of strictly forward leaning into partner during the dance. For those who wonder: as long as you're standing still, pushing force of leader always equals pushing force of follower! So if you think partner is pushing too hard, it's because you're pushing back. As a leader, just get a little closer with your feet if you feel it's too much.

Often also called shared axis, although there is no axis involved at all. However, once you're tightly connected with the upper bodies (leaning or not), you'll notice you have to take into account the shared center of mass to get the dynamics right. This shared center of mass will always have to be somewhere between the two weight-bearing feet.

  • When leaning forward, this requires good balance left-right. But as a couple, you can still turn around any vertical axis you like.
  • When leaning backward (see colgada) however, also the balance forward-backward will need to be perfect, because there is little room for error for the position of this shared center of mass, since the outline of the weight-bearing feet is a very small surface. In this case turning around each other will have to be around a vertical axis through the center of mass. That'll be the “shared axis”.
carpa, puente tent, bridge

Normally tango is danced with a little leaning forward into each other. This is called “apilado” or with shared balance. Admittedly, it can be danced without it (both dancers completely in own balance; it might be good to master this earlier on in the learning process). But it can also done with a lot of leaning forward, meaning the two weight bearing feet of the couple are far from each other. That is a “carpa". The leaning forward is relaxed, and the force between the couple is completely horizontal, exactly as when leaning against a wall. You never hang onto your partner, even the follower's arms are never resting fully on the leader!

The amount of “carpa” can be varied throughout the dance, but this requires advanced following and leader skills. This is what happens in a volcada and in an opposite sense in a colgada. Also leading and following of ochos milongueros requires mastery of playing with the amount of forward lean.

And this forward lean is a very good exercise while both standing on one leg, since its feel and subtle balance is essential to tango. This horizontal force will have to be in the direction of the standing foot (seen from above), otherwise there would be torsional force on both spines and on both supporting feet. You never want that.

cadena (1) grapevine (cadena = chain)

The efficient way of moving sideways, by overtaking your standing foot, just as you would do when walking forward normally. You would want to alternate between overtaking in front or behind the standing foot. There must be some link to the Sirtaki dance here :-).

The pivots of 90° are to happen in between the steps, after collecting.

cadena (2) “cadena” (cadena = chain) A rather complicated four-step-figure where the leader does two sacadas in a row and then receives two sacadas, all sacadas having the same turning sense. With sacadas of 90°, the couple will have performed an entire turn and they will have moved about two step lengths in the direction of the first step of the follower (or the second step of the leader).
caminar en (sistema) cruzado to walk in crossed(3) system Both step together with right, and then both step with left, and so on.
caminar en (sistema) paralelo to walk in parallel system At the same time one dancer steps with left, the other steps with right.


One of the most misused and misty words in the world of dance. Three technically correct meanings are:

  • to denote the axis of rotation at any instant of a rigid body. This axis can be moving during the movement, and can be outside of the body. The two upper bodies of a tango couple can be considered as one body.
  • to stress the straightness of a line connecting three or more points. This would make no sense at all for two points, since they are always on an axis. The term straight line is more appropriate here.
  • a centerline in a body, meaning that there is some symmetry around this line. In dancing that would typically be the line that more or less is the centerline of your upper body and goes through your head. The term centerline is more appropriate here.

Many times the word axis is also abused to mean:

  • a vertical line
  • an erect posture
  • balance

The term “shared axis” is used to imply the couple is in static balance as a whole, but there is a (small) horizontal forward or backward force between partners, meaning they are leaning forward (apilado) or backward (A or V-shape of the lines between supporting foot and center of mass). The term shared balance would be more appropriate.

The term “in axis” is used to imply an individual is in own static balance. The term in own balance would be more appropriate.

  center of mass To be in static balance, the vertical line through your center of mass must cross the ground somewhere inside the outline of your support (being the rectangle around your feet or foot). Tango is dynamic however, and that will be part two in the learning process! Getting all timing right when doing the movements with the dynamic swaying forces in them is the real mastery you'll be looking for. Tango really becomes subtle while playing with energy this way.
paso step  
cambio de peso change of weight weight shift, step
disociación dissociation  
  chassé step  
paso abierto, paso cruzado hacia atrás, paso cruzado hacia adelante open step, back cross(3) step, front cross(3) step  
la cruzada o el cruce the cross(1) step or the cross(1)  
corrida (a) run walking in double time
molinete molinete” (molinete = little windmill) a grapevine wound up around a fixed point. It is the normal way of turning around your partner.


Extra Spice: Nice to Have

Spanish term English term Meaning
Cunita little cradle rock step
soltada   A modern tango move were the couple break their connection, which really amounts to violating one of the most basic elements of the dance. Mostly it involves one dancer doing a pirouette, or one dancer passing behind the back of the partner, or a combination of both. Very hard to pull off elegantly IMHO.
patada kick  
arrastre, barrida sweep (arrastrar = to drag with you) (barrer = to sweep) After the leader has made contact between the sides of the fronts of the two free feet, it is normal for the follower to stay were she is and keep a small horizontal touching force between these feet. Leader can now sweep towards anywhere by pushing - but also by “magnetically” pulling - the feet horizontally. Hard for beginners, because they would want to use this free foot from time to time to correct balance problems, so it is not yet really free.
boleo boleo  
gancho “gancho” (gancho = hook)

It is what a relaxed and free leg does when it encounters an obstacle (another leg) behind the knee whilst the leg was traveling *horizontally*. The knee will bend automatically, and the foot will go up in a circular motion, also automatically. It is used as a visual accent, and should be led in connection with the music. And it should be used very sparsely or not at all in crowded places!

It is is not necessary for the follower to lift the foot herself. She could maybe add a little momentum if not enough energy was led. The upward motion should come out of horizontal energy. But it is absolutely horrible to lift the knee, because the leg is supposed to go *backward*, and all of this automatically. The knee makes an essentially horizontal backward motion before being stopped. Remark: the only exception to this, is all the aerial legwork in modern tango, where all kind of static poses seem to be in fashion. I wouldn't call that a gancho however, which is rather supposed to be a very rhythmic accent.

Don't change posture of the upper body. It is not because your leg goes backward that you should bend over, nor heighten your shoulders!

The follower shouldn't be worried too much about “doing” anything, except for keeping the free leg really free and relaxed, as always. The gancho should then happen automatically. If it doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen. It's best to gracefully continue. It's very hard to lead it well. Leaders that insist that it still should happen after a lousy lead and while the musically interesting moment has passed already are not dancing tango but teaching nonsense. If well led, it will begin as a completely normal backward step where suddenly something will be behind your knee, and your horizontal body motion will be interrupted while being right on your standing leg.

Leaders: the gancho is never led by the arms!! Try leading it without using your arms. It is all about remaining connected with the upper bodies.

And most important of all: the lead is absolutely horizontal!!! Never pull up with your arms. That would be as inelegant as can be.

Conclusion: for a gancho, think backward, not up!

parada stop (parar = to stop)  
freno stop (frenar = to brake) stopping a free foot with the leader's free foot.
entrada “entrada” (entrar = to enter) similar to sacada, but always on inside of trailing foot, and therefore always an open step.
enrosque   an unwinding movement of the legs while pivoting
lapiz pencil  
castigada punishment  
colgada “colgada” (colgar = to hang)  
volcada “volcada” (volcar = to rock, to tip over)

Increasing the amount of forward lean (see apilado and carpa) and restoring it. Meanwhile often a front boleo is led. To lead the lean, the leader steps - as always in a very controlled fashion - away from the follower when her waist is high, so stepping for her is impossible. There is no pulling at her back!!! Keep the leaning as relaxed and as comfortable as possible, as when leaning against a wall.

To lead and to accompany the boleo, the leader's body can make a circular motion - or rather triangular - by taking a step around the follower in between the step away and the step back. But more often, the triangle will be pointing backward, meaning the leader does only one step away, and then immediately does the returning step towards somewhere else than where he started.

cucharita little spoon  
cuchilla little knife  
paso básico (eight count) basic step

A nice little eight-step choreography that can show what tango is about. But it mostly does exactly the opposite: in classes it distracts from almost everything that is important at the cost of exactly this choreography. When Argentine tango is not about choreography. It is about connection.

sanguche sandwich  
mordida bite  
cambio de frente change of front  
media vuelta half turn  
media luna half moon  
adorno adornment embellishment
firulete   any adornment


Musical Terminology

Spanish term English term Meaning
dos y tres, tres y dos two and three, three and two A defining two-bar rumba rhythm. However, half of it (the bar with three notes) is called a 3-3-2 and corresponds nicely with the feel of a typical milonga bar.
síncopa syncope

An accent or the absence of it, right on the opposite moment of where this should normally happen, meaning typically precisely halfway between these normal moments (heavier and lighter beats respectively). This is not the least expected moment (that would be random), but it really is the second most logical moment. It is something like doing the wrong thing in the most logical way. It often suggests a faster underlying rhythm without really having to play or dance that fast.

It is something very defining of ragtime and rock music, but almost any music contains it.

milonga (música) milonga (music) Has two beats per measure, which is very similar to the four beats per measure of normal tango music, but it is generally faster than “straight” tango music, and has a distinct syncopated feel to it. See síncopa.
tango vals tango waltz

Tango music with two light beats evenly distributed in between the strong beats, as is normal in any waltz. The normal rhythmical structure of a song is to always split everything in 2. Time intervals get divided in 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and so on. That is the most natural thing to do. You don't headbang in a triangle. But with waltz you'd have to. :-)

This means time gets divided in 3 instead somewhere in this series of divisions by 2. Is is fair to say on a slower and on a faster level, the music still is divided in 2 or 4 and so on. So we could have 4 phrases, of 4 bars each, that contain 3 beats each, that many instruments will even still divide in 2 to play quick notes. Take Metallica's “Nothing Else Matters” as an example of this process.

Such a tango waltz block of three typically lasts about one second.

Tango waltz is especially apt for lots of turning: giros and sacadas. Non-fluid moves like sandwich, parada and gancho have no place in waltz.

tango (música) tango (music) Is often the “straight” kind, having four beats per measure. Other music types exists, such as Tango Waltz and Milonga music.
bandoneón bandoneon musical instrument
el compás the beats not a single beat, but rather the pulsing of the music
ritmo rhythm  


It can mean:

The playing or stepping of three notes each of the same duration in the place of two. It is temporarily playing waltz in non-waltz music. It gives a stumbling feel to the music. It typically takes the time of one beat or of two beats.

It can also mean something closely related to this, but on a slower level: how to play three notes in one bar as evenly distributed as possible, but within the feel of a 4 or 2 beat bar. It amounts to distributing eight equal pieces of cake under three children really. Its is called the 3-3-2.


Spanish term English term Meaning
salida “salida” (salir = to come out)  
caminata walk, stroll (caminar = to walk)  
resolución tango close (resolución = the resolving)  
Milonga (sitio) Milonga (place) a tango event
pista de baile dance floor  
el cabeceo the “head nod” a discrete way of inviting to dance by making the eyes meet instead of plain asking.
  line of dance  



Reader Comments