Saturday, April 26, 2014

Tango's Two Essential Steps

Since we had little feet we have known
the essential steps of tango
Artist:  Diana Lee




Try it out this weekend! It's easy to remember:  Left and right.

Tango was much more difficult before humans developed the ability to walk on just two feet.  Because of your humanity, tango is the easiest dance to learn in the world.  It takes a lifetime to master, but left and right are pretty easy steps,  ¿sí o no?

I don't mean to brag, but I started doing essential tango steps while even in diapers.  Chances are, you did too.

Two other essential things:

Hugging.  I did that before the tango walk!  Chances are, you did too.  This is primal stuff, mis amigos.  My mother was my main tango-embrace teacher.  Damn, she was good and got better all the time!  Even in my teen years when I wanted to do open embrace with her, she knew how to lean into the embrace and remind me of who I am.  She also gave me my first drum lessons by drumming out a song she called, "Burping the Baby," which my siblings tell me was a real jam session between the two of us.  Hugging and percussion go well together, which leads me to the last essential thing for tango. . . .

Music.  No one told me how to move to music. Chances are that no one told you either.  You just did it without instruction.  My mom and sister told family stories of how I would go wild with Elvis Presley's "You're nothing but a hound dog." I even had grinding hips, they say.  I didn't have to pay a dance studio to get this down.  It's all part of what homo sapiens uniquely do!  Later, when people suggested how I should dance and because of peer pressure and the anti-dance culture in America,* I forgot what I already knew about tango.  Thank God I found it again!

Different Strokes (or steps) for Different Folks
In nearly every tango community, I think one can find two opposite ways of teaching or thinking about tango.  One is social and the joy of dance, and the other is analytic/performance-focused.  In a competitive and performance-focused scene, the community is in jeopardy of dying out in one or two generations. Social dance is very much focused on the quality of dance but also the person with whom one dances.  I knew a very picky, excellent dancer who danced with all ranges of ability because some were friends and others were fun to dance with because of their natural abilities.  That means that she didn't dance with just anyone because she danced mostly for social reasons even though she was so good.  Even if a person is a stranger, the social dancer is looking for clues of an interesting person.

On the other hand, performance-based dance has teachers who announce:  "Tango is hard"; the unabridged Encyclopedia of Tango Steps has 3 million cool moves, so let's begin.  "Tango is 'technique, technique, technique.'"  (These are actual quotes!)  There is room for all sorts of teaching methods.  However, I would posit that making tango a technical dance is a turn in the opposite direction of the fact that it is natural and ultimately very human.  Eventually we find its simplicity after becoming poor dancers for a while.  Eventually, when no one is looking we dance who we are rather than what a teacher has told us what to be.  Then it happens--one finds the three M's of tango.  Once we find this place of owning the dance, THEN I believe we should start taking classes for advanced dancers.  (There's a step that's called the "basic step" that is really hard  I suggest trying it when you really can dance the two essential steps very well.)   [Ironic gestures go here.]  Once we have the two essential steps of tango down, excellent hugging and truly listening and responding to the music, it is time to take some "beginner / intermediate / advanced" classes.  Find a teacher who will help you do this.

What is truly hard to learn
Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic (the so-called three R's) are infinitely more difficult than the three M's of tango:  Movement, Music, and eMbrace.  I have told this to students, and then they make very fast progress NOT thinking about multiple steps but instead shaping the things they already know or feel as homo sapiens.  I can teach only about 7 hours of instruction, then how should I know how your brain dances?  Only you can do that.  If you want to impress people by the way you look, then force yourself to learn things you are not ready for developmentally.

Please go be a Master Beginner.  Return to what you have long known deep within yourself--your own natural humanity.

Photo credit:  Used by permission of the artist.  Please visit Diana Lee's website to see her wonderful art. 

Unimportant Footnote:
*Regarding anti-dance culture:  Multiple times in my life in America I have had friends and neighbors for whom dance was forbidden.  That American culture grew up in this puritan environment.  It still has its effects.  The best therapy to counteract this disconnection to our basic humanity is (in my opinion) TANGO, the simplest dance in the world.


  1. Oh, I hope analytic tango isn't reserved only for competitive/performace! I am not saying it has to be 100% technical, but some people (myself, for instance) learn better when they have more information, rather than less. Truly, nothing frustrated me more when I was starting than to have someone tell me I just needed to "stop thinking," or that all I had to do was "connect." What made tango work for me was accepting that I was, indeed, going to think, and that I needed to understand how the movements and physical interactions felt, and THEN relax and connect, and that was actually an ok approach that I didn't need to justify. I may not be a substantially better tango dancer for it, but I am definitely a happier one! :)

  2. I agree with Alice. A good grounding in technique will help you to relax and connect and not think when you are actually out on the dance floor later. And some movements in tango are more natural than others: walking forwards in flat shoes is natural; walking backwards in heels is not. In fact, I had never done it before I began this dance. Also, being a social dancer, doesn't mean there is some ethical requirement to dance with everyone or that you have to dance with people just because you are friends or because they would be interesting people to talk to. The social scene is healthiest when everyone can choose their partners freely and dance for mutual pleasure.

  3. alice automatic wrote: Oh, I hope analytic tango isn't reserved only for competitive/performace!

    I hope it is reserved for competitive, performance and class-style tango.

    some people (myself, for instance) learn better when they have more information, rather than less.

    Learning through information should not be mistaken for analysis. Learning social dance is like learning to speak. You learn to speak from all the information you get from hearing the speech of different people. Not from listening to a class teacher's analysis.

    Truly, nothing frustrated me more when I was starting than to have someone tell me I just needed to "stop thinking," or that all I had to do was "connect."

    "Stop thinking" is intended to frustrate and disable a process widely recognised as obstructive to dance learning. All you do need to do is connect. That's the way you receive the information you need in order to learn.

    "I needed to understand how the movements and physical interactions felt

    Most learners gain that by feeling. What they get by thinking is only what they think they feel.

  4. @Iona. I agree with Alice too, and I agree 100% with your comment. Not all art, but much of art becomes great with technic and exactitude. Each person should find the method that feels right for them, but there's a caution here: Iona and I have learned a few foreign languages; my guess is that we both were far too analytical with our first foreign language, which delayed our progress. (At least that is what happened to me.) That's the kind of learner I was, and I was sure it was right FOR ME.

    Technique is easy for some, but others need it desperately. You must figure that out for yourself.


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