“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Walking Together in a Straight Line

Tango is walking together. So let's walk in a line together. If the leader walks forward, then the follower walks backward.

You might be tempted to think that this is the most simple tango figure or tango step pattern, but there is already significant complexity to it. If you look at all possible stepping possibilities as a couple, you can even consider it as a special case of a sacada. Moreover, we'll see now why in tango it is actually more natural to walk outside partner, despite the required dissociation.

Walking Inside Partner, Parallel System

Walking inside partner: two shared foot lanes
Walking inside partner: two shared foot lanes. The lines in this diagram represent the connection between partners in between steps, not the foot paths.

Walking inside partner in parallel system means you are in front of each other, mirroring each other's steps. This might seem like the simplest thing to do and is indeed taught everywhere in the first tango lesson. A beginning dancer might be relieved because there's no dissociation involved, but he soon discovers this is a hard “figure” to pull off elegantly.

When we think in “foot lanes” or “foot tracks”, there are two different lanes that we both share. Hence indeed there is the risk of stepping on the lady's toes, certainly when leading and following skills are still fresh.

Walking Outside Partner: What They Normally Teach You

A stereotypical tango feature is the so-called walking outside partner. To help you understand what happens, this concept is mostly explained with foot lanes. The diagrams show this for walking outside left, but walking outside right is similar.

Two connection lines: one before and one after the simultaneous step
Parallel System, Walking Outside Left.
Two connection lines: one before and one after the simultaneous step
Crossed System, Walking Outside Left.

Explained like this, there seems to be a huge difference between parallel and crossed walking system, and indeed, the first time you'll try this in crossed system, it might feel all very complicated and even dangerous ;-).

Nothing wrong with this conceptual explanation, because it helps to visualize and to understand. But in reality, we don't walk in that many lanes, though. We'll see later on what really happens.

Overview

Up till now, we have the following 5 possibilities for walking in a line in tango:

Looking at It Structurally

If you think walking in line is complicated, here's a simple trick.

First of all, the length of any step can be chosen without any problem. The leader typically steps close to the standing leg of the follower, because it is considered more beautiful if the steps are at least that deep. In that case he needs to choose whether to pass the standing leg of the follower left or right with every step, irrespective of his free leg, and irrespective of her free leg. That was the trick. This really is the only structural complexity for the leader to handle, and it helps looking at things this way. It's a free and independent choice for every step.

In theory, this yields eight possibilities for continuously walking together in a straight line (leader forward, follower backward).

Leader passes follower's standing foot Leader's step type Parallel Walking System Crossed Walking System Oscar Casas' Highways :-)
always left alternating open step and forward cross step Parallel Left Outside Crossed Left Outside Highway 1
always right Parallel Right Outside Crossed Right Outside Highway 3
alternating sides always open steps Parallel Inside Don't know what to call this Highway 2
always forward cross steps Parallel Zigzag (ocho-like) Crossed Zigzag (ocho-like) No highway because nobody steps like this, except maybe in the “chorizo” way of dancing as he calls it ;-).

The zigzag options are legal but weird and are seldom used.

This table should already make it clear that alternating sides is really the stranger option, even for stepping parallel inside. Stepping parallel inside feels to a beginner as the easy one, because there's no dissociation involved. But once you understand the principle of dissociation as a natural thing that happens all the time throughout the dance, things will start feeling the other way round.

Also interesting to notice is that once walking outside, the walking system really doesn't make that much of a difference. It only does if you walk with your free hip first, which is bad technique. In that case you'll indeed need more dissociation in parallel outside than in crossed outside.

Walking Alone

What happens when walking alone?

When walking on the street, most people will walk in two lanes. The farther those lanes are apart, the smaller the chance of tripping over your own foot or trousers, but the less elegant (to say the least) the walk will be. It is a complicated dynamic process, where the center of mass wobbles a bit from left to right, but all in all it remains pretty much in the middle, because of the fastness and dynamics like swinging of arms.

However, when walking very slow, or when dancing tango, we will move in between islands of strong balance. Remarkably, when standing on one leg in balance, your standing foot is not on one side, but rather right in the middle under your body, since that's where your center of mass is (approximately). In between steps, our center of mass will thus be exactly on top of our foot. We could still step in two lanes, but there is no need for it, as our center of mass would have to sway from left to right, which is never elegant.

Therefore it is only natural that a tango walk is in one lane, on a straight line (no wobbling from left to right). We are walking in one lane, except for the moment were we overtake our standing leg with the free leg: we need some space there to pass through with our free foot.

What Really Happens When Walking Outside Partner

Because of all this, what happens with the foot lanes in reality is quite different from what they generally tell you.

Two connection lines: one before and one after the simultaneous step
Parallel System, Walking Outside Left: Two Private Foot Lanes.
Two connection lines: one before and one after the simultaneous step
Crossed System, Walking Outside Left: Two Private Foot Lanes.

It turns out that walking outside partner allows for both dancers to stay in their own private 100% straight lane!

Not so when alternating sides: it is impossible to both walk in a straight line. At least one dancer will have to zigzag a bit. Absolutely legal tango when done correctly, but not really 100% walking in a line.

This explains why the more experienced dancers may prefer walking outside (mostly in crossed system) to walking inside (in front) in parallel system.

Conclusion

What looked like simply walking in front of each other is more like a zigzag-experience than you might think. It is impossible to perform this without a light swaying motion for at least one of the partners.

Walking system Side Number of Lanes (Conceptually, as Often Taught) Number of Lanes in Reality
parallel left outside 4 private lanes 2 private lanes
crossed left outside 3 lanes (1 shared, 2 private) 2 private lanes
parallel inside (frontal) 2 shared lanes 2 shared lanes
crossed right outside 3 lanes (1 shared, 2 private) 2 private lanes
parallel right outside 4 private lanes 2 private lanes

 

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