“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Couple Movement: to Turn or Not to Turn

Tango is also turning a lot, although this is not taught in beginner's classes. What possibilities are there?

This is where tango can get complicated. Since we'll try to maintain the couple's connection and distance, we can consider the couple's upper bodies as quite “monolithic”. We will now examine all possible steps and symmetries with this connection as our only constraint. For each simultaneous step, there will be a rotation axis of this single four-legged body.

Interestingly, on this page it won't matter at all which foot leader nor follower is on! We'll simply step with our free foot, as always.

Along versus Opposite

We will represent the connection by a line segment, connecting the supporting (standing) feet of both partners. After the step, this connection line will have moved to somewhere else. There are three possibilities. The connection lines before and after:

  • don't intersect (I'll call this partners moving along);
  • intersect (I'll call this partners moving opposite);
  • touch (I'll call this the limit case).

Remark: there is no “official” tango terminology for this as far as I know.

Examples of all cases are represented in step diagrams on the next page.

Partners moving along

  • If both steps have equal length, there will be no rotation of the couple. If not, there can be a lot of rotation (up to almost a half turn).
  • We say partners move more or less in the same direction.
  • The couple's rotation center will be behind one of the partners, possibly offset to the side.
  • The amount of couple's rotation is a result of difference in step length.

Partners moving opposite

  • The bigger the steps, the more the couple rotates. With small steps, there can be a limited amount of rotation (up to almost nothing).
  • We say the dancers are turning around each other.
  • The couple's rotation center will be somewhere in between them, possible offset to the side.
  • The amount of couple's rotation is a result of combined step length.
  • Example: partners face each other, you both step to your left forward.

Limit case 1 : the turn (giro)

  • The ends of the connection line segments meet in the same person: that person stays where he/she is (no step) and will be pivoting and doing a giro, partner stepping around.
  • We say one dancer turns around the other.
  • The couple's rotation center will be the non-stepping but pivoting partner.
  • The amount of couple's rotation is a result of the step length of the person stepping around.

Limit case 2 : the displacement (sacada)

  • The ends of the connection line segments meet in the other dancer: this is a very interesting case where one person's step line takes the position of the connection line, and the connection line moves to where the other person's step line was. This is called a sacada by this first person. He/she literally follows the path of the other and goes to where this person was standing. At least almost. Since we want to be stepping (almost) simultaneously, this would be impossible without jumping. So this step has to be a little left or right from the leg that will be leaving (trailing foot), making a sacada always a very small amount of moving either along or opposite. This doesn't matter in practice, but open steps and cross steps (for the dancer that does the sacada) get reversed too by this choice, that's all.
    • Remark about the step type for sacadas: this is counterintuitive. It might seem logical not to reverse this, and simply use the same step type and couple's movement for the inside step as for the outside step. However, this would only be consistent with a definition of step types relative to a line connecting the middles of the stepping lines or something like that, instead of a line connecting the standing feet before the step. I'll keep on using the latter definition.
  • We say dancers follow each other (not in the sense of leading and following though: it is always the leader that leads the step, irrespective whether he does the sacada or leads his partner to do so).
  • The couple's rotation center will be to the side of the couple, as well before as after the step.
  • The amount of couple's rotation is a result of the “angle of attack”, typically about 90°. It can be less, but as the most special case, we have the couple following each other in a straight line (angle of attack 180°), which is precisely what we do in the first class! If we make the angle of attack still bigger and the sacada “doer” steps to the other side of the trailing foot, along and opposite won't get interchanged, but the couple's turning direction gets reversed, albeit while turning little, and open steps and cross steps (for the dancer that gets the sacada) get reversed too.


Couple's Movement Dancer A Moves (Own Perspective) Dancer B Moves (Own Perspective)
along leftward rightward
rightward leftward
opposite rightward rightward
leftward leftward
limit One dancer steps towards foot of partner (sacada), or doesn't step at all (giro)

Using Space Wisely in Crowded Milongas

It is obvious that taking small steps is always a wise thing to do in crowded places. But which of the bigger steps are the better options?

It is interesting to notice that the opposite movement with equal step lengths, with the rotation center somewhere in between partners (“shortest” turn) is actually the most natural thing to do in crowded milongas, since you come rather close to swapping places with partner (buying and selling space). Moving along on the contrary actually takes up the most place, especially with big steps, since you pretty much both move to a far away new spot.

As an example, in your first ocho class, the leader typically “receives” or “accompanies” the follower's ochos with side steps towards the same side (along). However, moving (with side steps or own ochos, doesn't matter) in the opposite direction takes up less space, involves turning of the couple, and induces a completely different feel! Try it out!

The Couple's Turning Sense

A leftward move adds clockwise rotation of the couple, and likewise does a rightward move adds counterclockwise rotation. But if there is movement along, the biggest step determines the sense of the rotation.

Couple's Movement Step Length Difference Dancer A Moves Dancer B Moves Couple's Turning Sense
Along A's steps bigger than B's steps (A “wins”) leftward rightward clockwise
rightward leftward counterclockwise
A's steps smaller than B's steps (B “wins”) leftward rightward counterclockwise
rightward leftward clockwise
Opposite doesn't matter leftward leftward clockwise
rightward rightward counterclockwise



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