“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Introduction: Walking

What Is Tango?

Dancing tango is two people walking together while being immersed in nice tango music. In Argentine tango in its purest form there is no fixed choreography. It is not even predetermined which leg to start with. What and how will be danced is the result of the communication between leader and follower.

Walking: Free Leg versus Standing Leg

In tango, most of the time you will be with your entire weight on one leg. That would be the standing leg, the other one being the free leg. Why? Because tango is walking, and the only way to alter your position without an instant with a completely free leg (no weight at all on it) would be some kind of jump.

Normally there's no hopping in tango, meaning: you always step with your free foot, i.e. the one you're not standing on. That also means leaders never have to lead which foot the follower is to use for her step: it will always be her free one. However the leader absolutely does have to lead the follower's weight transfers to free one foot and to be always perfectly aware which foot the follower is standing on!

The Basic Step

The tango basic step is simple: it is taking one step. However, it took us years to master this, as we all know.

Now it is really the how that matters. Not the what. Getting that right, especially the new element of doing it together, will still take most of us many years.

How to Walk? A Tutorial.

There's pages to write on how to walk. One could say tango walking is normal walking, but enhanced and optimized a bit :-) to make it possible to lead and follow *any* improvisation, on a step-by-step basis. Therefore the step is communicated on first while still in balance, and executed afterwards. Stepping really is like moving in between islands of strong balance (on one foot). Balance is the key ingredient, even during the step itself. Some important considerations:

  • Your weight is on the inside of the ball (front half) of one foot. One of the best exercises is to move this point of contact with the ground inside your foot slowly around: you can move your nose 10 cm from left to right, and 25 cm from front to back, without changing anything at all of your body posture, simply because that's the dimension of your foot (to be precise, you can even do twice this distance, because your center of mass lies somewhere halfway in between your foot and your nose). This is a very important skill for tango dancing.
  • Your posture of the upper body is as perfect as can be (don't use muscle tension to enforce this however), and nothing ever needs to change there, except for dissociation, which is the torsion of the spine, which will happen often in tango.
  • The knees work as a lift. Nothing at all changes in the upper body when flexing the knees !!! This is pretty hard for many and requires discipline. Many will lean backward while bending the knees. Practice this a lot. Also avoid to cave in with your upper body. Everything above your waist must think up; your legs and feet must think down, into the ground. So you will often have to lower your waist, but all the while the distance from nose to waist never changes!!
  • We will never fall into a step. That means a tango dancer simply can't trip. This is the main difference with normal walking, and this is also why tango-walking is cat-like. You feel the new spot with your free foot while in complete balance on the other, you grasp it like an animal, and now the weight transfer will happen completely 100% horizontally in a controlled fashion. Again, it is a very good exercise to practice this in slow motion, say counting to 5 for every step.
  • Your hips always remain horizontal (don't use muscle tension to enforce this however).
  • Because of this, you can't step with a stretched standing leg (except for ballerinas who can step onto the tip of a stretched foot). In salsa the hip of the free leg is lowered in a sexy fashion, and a step is possible. Never like this in tango! It will be the other way round.
  • You have to “arm” yourself for a step, by bending the knee of the standing leg. The amount of bending in your knee will dictate the length of your step, and the free leg will want to remain stretched (not locked). It often will choose direction long before the actual weight transfer is carried out. The step itself will always be initiated with a stretched free leg reaching out. This reaching out is called “projection”. It is important to stress that this reaching out is a natural result of lowering the waist, and not the other way round. Never concentrate on the reaching, but rather on the “arming” by lowering the waist.
  • It is this way that the length of the step is communicated (or rather negotiated) by the leader long before it will actually be carried out. The follower tries to follow the amount of knee flexing up and down! Otherwise no different step lengths can be led other than by pulling, pushing and forcing. If you're good, you'll be able to lead and follow without hands, even without touching each other. It's all very subtle.
  • When you come up by unbending the knee of the standing leg, walking is over. Time for a little pause while dancing. The stepping stops, but the movement and flow doesn't have to. This happens *after* the step. You never climb out of a step whilst still in the middle of it! While doing consecutive steps, you'll want to stay armed, and thus you stay low, meaning knee of standing leg bent. You stay low while you walk. The goal is not to make yourself smaller and to shrink to fit under a small door; it is only the waist that will be a bit lower than when walking on the street.
  • The step itself is carried out by typically reaching still a bit farther with the free foot (actually that is the upper body initiating the displacement, and the foot simply just not landing yet), and now landing and transferring weight in a controlled fashion, meaning the upper body stays upright throughout the entire process. Hips, chest and head travel the exact same distance. Some people might be tempted to move the hips (or worse: one hip) first into the step, to reach far with the free foot. I have seen this done, even by experienced dancers or the lesser gods among teachers. That's not the way. If you want to step farther, you should bend the knee of the standing leg more before even starting.
  • A special case is leading and following very small steps. Your waists will have to be high to lead and follow this.

As a conclusive test, you can see that if you are stepping right, your nose should describe U-shaped paths in the air. A V-shaped path is wrong, and proves you are falling into your steps, as you would do when walking on the street. You will have poor navigational control, you'll pull your partner off balance, and collisions on the floor will be painful, because your weight is already underway: the colliding leg is not free.

As a general rule, you will see one of the main reasons why leading and following is so hard in the beginning, is the knees remaining unbent. If the leader lowers his waist, and the follower stays up, he knows he's in for a hard time. Let's call this an equal-length-step-follower. And if the leader falls into his steps, he'll force and maybe even hurt the follower. But everybody has been there! Focus on togetherness and take your time. Don't try to step in the beat of the music in the beginning, because it will be completely at the expense of the leading-following process. The ultimate goal is not only leading and following a quick or a slow step, but also the subtlest differences in timing, phrasing, distance, angle, and so on.


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