22 January 2009

Tango: It's not about you. It's about HER

A newbie to tango once asked me, what the secret to being a good tango dancer was.

My reply, "It's not about you. It's about HER." He gave me a quizzical look. I explained...

When you do your (other) dances, you try to look good to your partner and to the audience... right? He (sheepishly) agrees. To do this you do the flashy multiple under arm turns, cumbias, the clothes, etc... right? Once again, he agrees.

Well, in tango, (as you can see) you really don't do that stuff (we were in a milonga). You're dancing so close that you can't look at each other.

You're concentrating so much on leading that if you try to showboat, you mess up your leading, making your motion choppy, awkward, and out of tune.

You can do the flashy stuff, but look at how crowded the floor is. You're liable to crash into others, so try to avoid it. Rather, do it when you have space. Besides, if you can't do it well yourself, it's unlikely you'll be able to lead it. If you try to force or teach her, you're just making her miserable, embarrassed or both.

In your (other) dance, you can do all this bump and grind and spin stuff because you're in one place. Here, the crowd is a densely moving herd.

What is important to dancing tango is the connection. It's that feeling of being "One body, four legs." There are two of you but you move as one—Movement comes from you, ending with her.

She is the reason why you tango. If you lead her to dance well, she'll be happy. With that, she'll look good, and you will be remembered positively. Don't worry about the steps. They'll come with practice and patience. Worry about walking properly first.

The bottom line, make every effort to make it good for HER. She'll appreciate that and you'll be remembered. That's what makes a good tango dancer.

He looked at me strangely and said "Ok," and walks off (I guess he was expecting me to teach him the super secret tango step combo). I chuckle and finish out the rest of the night dancing.

15 January 2009

The combination lock

A combination lock only needs 3 numbers to make it work. Each 3 numbers come from the integers of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Its the combination of these 3 numbers from the 10 integers that make each combination lock unique.

What does this have to do with tango, you may ask? Well, as a leader, this is a lesson I had to learn myself through trial and error.

You do not have to collect and memorize so many steps that you can't do yourself, let alone lead.

Rather, master at least three simple ones that you can do really well (e.g. the walk, an ocho, a giro). Do them right, make them look good. Then, like the combination lock, shuffle them around as the music dictates. Modify their delivery and speed with pauses and hesitations. Suddenly, your 3 can be delivered 10 different ways each. That makes 30 variations of steps you can use. Shuffle their delivery, of course, as the music dictates. That gives you 90 combinations all based on the original three.

Your partner, can read it because you lead it well. She'll enjoy and appreciate that. She won't get bored if you do the simple stuff well to the music, even if you're only using variations of 3 combinations.

You evolve from being a "step collector" to someone who dances tango dynamically. As you get better, progressively add another simple step, and repeat the process. If my math is right, I think the possible combinations based on three is 27,000... Can you imagine the possibilities?

12 January 2009

A litany of tango epiphanies

Epiphany iˈpifənē
• a moment of sudden revelation or insight


Being a lead in Tango is extremely difficult. You have to navigate, interpret the music, lead the movements, dance in tune with the music, know what your partner is doing, know what foot she's on, keep your balance, don't knock her off her axis, plan your timing, maintain your posture, make sure your embrace is just right, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera... ALL AT ONCE!

I like to think that I'm an OK lead who can hold my own on a milonga floor. How I got to my current level of dancing tango was not easy. My development was not linear nor steady. It wasn't like my ballroom dancing where you go through a regimented and measured program where one goes form Bronze 1, Bronze 2, Silver 1, Silver 2, and Gold levels.

My Tango path has been, and still is difficult. The very nature of Argentine Tango being driven by improvisation and musicality, while operating under strict conduct and parameters, stifles the linear learning method. It advocates a different approach to adult learning. The advantage of the tango paradigm is that the simplest of walks can be transformed into a beautiful art form filled with passion and meaning. If, done with the right intent, commitment, and execution.

My Tango development trend is a series of peaks and valleys. Long stretches of time that could be described as, "Great! This is good... What next?" Then, interspersed with sporadic events of angelic "AHA!" moments—Epiphanies!

When these epiphanies occur, they cause strides in my tango evolutionary development. Some came from trial and error, some I had to work at, some from semi-traumatic Tango experiences, some happened on their own, some I learned from watching, and a myriad of other odd circumstances.

A few of the articles I've written illustrate the epiphanies that I found were so poignant (to me) that I still remember, and can write about. I'm positive that as I move forward, I will have more and my litany of epiphanies will grow.

Litany of Tango Epiphanies:

06 January 2009

A layman's guide to the different types of Tango

I was talking to Elizabeth at a recent party. She told me about her hairdresser who was perplexed on how one could be proficient at tango without having to dump thousands of dollars on lessons. Her hairdresser would also ask what "Costume" she wore when she went tango dancing. I told Elizabeth that she was talking about Ballroom Tango, and the practice of Ballroom schools that charge based on a linear progressive level (Bronze, Silver, Gold) system .

This is not an isolated question that non-dancers would ask. For instance, whenever the TV shows "Dancing With The Stars," and "So You Think You Can Dance" air, my friends would say, "I was thinking about you when they do Tango. Do you also wear those... 'Spandex latin shirts/coat tails/costumes' when you Tango?" I chuckle and politely explain that I dance Argentine Tango–not Ballroom Tango. They respond with a perplexed look, and I try to explain further.

Being a former ballroom dancer, and now, an exclusive practitioner of Argentine Tango, please allow me the opportunity to try to explain the differences between the two.

The following are my redactions from several historical references in my library, on-line, and my own 1st hand experiences.


The original Tango!
Born in the streets and bordellos of the late 19th and early 20th century Buenos Aires, Argentina. At first, a dance of illicit diversion participated in by the denizens of the night.

It found its way to the dance halls of Europe via Paris' cultural avant-garde. Suddenly, Tango was all the rage. Several evolutions of the dance happened, even the classical colors of tango (black and red–which was originally orange) were concieved and marketed.

Due to the influx of Europeans via travel and immigration to Buenos Aires, Tango returned with a new flavor and fervor. It moved out of the bordellos and slums into mainstream Buenos Aires society. It became "Gentrified." It no longer was the original "Dirty dance." It was now an earthy, beautiful and elegant art form. Further evolutions occurred and the dance took the form that we all know and love today.

To this day, Argentine Tango undergoes constant progressive growth while preserving its intimate, sensual, and elegant roots. This has created some of today's beautiful and popular Argentine Tango styles like Salón, Milonguero, Nuevo, Villa Urquiza, Nuevo, Fantasia (a.k.a. Show Tango), etc.

Argentine Tango performance by the late Carlos Gavito &
Geraldine Rojas

Also known as American Tango, American Smooth Tango, American Standard Tango. Originally based on Argentine Tango, it deviated, branched off, and evolved (even the music) into a totally different dance altogether. Ballroom Tango is like the English muffin, and the French Fry. It is an American invention!

America first saw what was supposed to be a Tango in the 1921 silent movie, "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." It starred Rudolph Valentino. This movie created a craze for the new dance.

America's first glimpse of "Tango." Rudolph Valentino's 1921 silent movie
(*Note: The soundtrack was added by the Youtube poster)

Unfortunately, due to the prevailing (and extremely prudish) social and moral attitudes of the 1920's and 1930's, Argentine Tango (as it was supposed to be danced), was considered too intimate, too much body contact, scandalous, lascivious, and thus socially unacceptable to be danced in public. Also, the sheer improvisational nature of Argentine Tango made it difficult to build a standardized teaching syllabus around.

Enter Arthur Murray (Yes, the founder of the Arthur Murray franchise chain of dance schools). He took Tango, combined it with touches from different Ballroom dances, "sanitized" the moves, "Anglicized" the terms, standardized the steps and patterns to make it fit into the stratified levels of Bronze, Silver, and Gold, (with separate pricing plans) of his dance schools. His efforts have succeeded in creating what is now known as Ballroom Tango. This method was applied to all dances taught by the chain.

A further evolution of this happened when American Tango crossed the Atlantic to England. The English codified the steps and movements further in order to standardize the judging for competitions. It became known as, International Tango (a.k.a. International Ballroom Tango, International Standard Tango).

American and International (Ballroom) tango are identical in technique. The difference is that American Tango permits open holds, which allow broken hold moves such as underarm turns, side-by-side choreography, etc. International Tango is strictly done in closed hold. Dancers cannot break their 3 points of contact (i.e. hips, left arms, right arms). Doing so will cost point deductions.

A world class Ballroom Tango at Blackpool, England.
The Olympics of Ballroom dancing competion

Technical Differences (That I know of)

*For Brevity: AT=Argentine Tango; BR=Ballroom Tango

Purpose of the dance
AT: Passionate. You dance for the connection. You dance for your partner. Danced socially.
BR: Exuberant. You dance for the appreciation and adulation of the audience/judges. Geared towards showcases and competition.

AT: The Bandoneon is the primary instrument. Rhythm can change several times within one song. Danced in sets of 4 songs called a "Tanda." Conspicuous absence of percussion. Dancers dance to the rhythm of the music. (note the Argentine Tango video soundtrack)
BR: Characterized by distinctive staccato marching beat, usually in 2/4 time. Beat is normally via snare drum with a distinctive "dump-dump-dump-dump-da-da-dump-dump-dump-dump" in keeping with the standard 5-count basic step. I uses the rhythm of "slow, slow, quick, quick, slow." The music is arranged to match this pattern. (note the ballroom video soundtrack)

AT: Men–Weight forward on the balls of the feet, shoulders back, chest out. Women–same.
BR: Men–Weight back square on the heels, shoulders back, chest out. Women–Leaned back, weight on the heels

Dance Position
AT: Dancers commonly use the "Milonguero" stance–an embrace. The contact from chest-to-chest. Looks like the letter "A" when done right.
BR: Dancers use the "Waltz" hold. Contact is side of the hip to side of the hip, legs alternating in between each other. Looks like the letter "Y"

Foot Placement
AT: Toe lead. Toe hits the ground first on the step
BR: Heel lead. Heel hits the ground first, as in a march

Women's Shoes
AT: Tango shoes are stiff to help support the woman's weight as she is normally on the balls of her feet most of the time. This is also the reason why a lot of Tango shoes have stiletto heels. They have hard leather soles as they are better at pivoting, and intended to be worn out AND to go dancing with.
BR: Flexible to allow for better "Pointing." Heels are lower, and wider as the weight lands on the heel often. Their soles are made of suede to protect the floor.

Technique & Steps
AT: Predominantly improvisational. Strides are normally shoulder width. Movements are smooth deliberate and elegant.
BR: Predominantly step/pattern driven. With memorized/standardized cues. Strides are huge. Movements are exaggerated, snappy, aggressive, and have a stalking, staccato character.

AT: Evening attire. If you can wear them out on an elegant date, this will work.
BR: Flashy, flamboyant ,Ball gowns, Costumes, feathers, sparkles, bling, make-up, etc.

With that, I hope it helps and clears up a few things.

03 January 2009

What do Tango people do at a dinner party?

I was supposed to have had a birthday party last November. Due to unexpected circumstances, that didn't happen. Then, Seattle was held in the grip of a two week sub-arctic freeze. All our parties and milongas were cancelled.

At the sign of the first decent thaw, we found an excuse to have a dinner party. We cooked our best Spanish inspired Filipino food. It was a warm gathering of friends. Friends who had a few things in common–A love for great company, fine wine, fine food, and a passion for Tango.

With appetites appeased, fireplace alight, and after 4 bottles of Champagne and 4.5 bottles of fine Malbec,  the Tango, Vals, and Milonga music suddenly got louder. The dining table, couches, chairs, stools, were moved out of the way. 

It didn't matter that our house was carpeted. It didn't matter that you had to navigate an odd route around the living room to the dining room. Everyone danced in socks and bare feet. It was so warm that we had to let open the door to cool the house down. It was beautiful!

What do Tango people do at a dinner party? Well, when critical mass is reached, we just have to dance to the strains of the bandoneon.