Many dances are based on learning certain figures, and then performing them correctly on the dance floor. Not tango. Tango is not based on figures; Tango is based on moving in response to the music, along with your partner: “Tango is Musicality and Connection” as the tango maestros say again and again. In tango classes it’s common to teach figures rather than Musicality and Connection, because it’s far easier, and it’s something students will pay for. On YouTube, the tangos you see are collections of figures; it’s because they are performances, not the tango done in the Milonga, and the dancers need to do what can be clearly seen. Musicality and Connection are subtle – hard to see – but they are where satisfaction and fulfillment are found. Most dancers who don’t learn Musicality and Connection, lose interest in dancing tango after a few years, and quit.
Tango originated a couple hundred years ago in Buenos Aires – not in dance schools, but in the neighborhoods. The men practiced with each other, and worked out details of movement and interpretation of the music. The women didn’t need to learn; they came to the milongas, the men asked them to dance, and they counted on the men to take care of them. If a man was unable to make his partner look good and feel good, his invitations would not be accepted by other women. There were way more men than women at the milongas, and the women could be very picky. Men were forced to teach themselves to be accomplished tango dancers, and so they did (in the nature of men everywhere). This same dynamic still propels tango today – in Buenos Aires – even though there is no longer a shortage of women. Men respect and care for the women, and make them feel good and look good. Or else!
You can teach yourself to tango, with a few guidelines, and lots of practice. You may want to learn more than you can teach yourself, and there are many competent tango teachers who can help you once you know the basics, but once you start learning figures, it’s very difficult to learn Musicality and Connection. Warning!
The place to start teaching yourself to tango is with the music. Those who have devoted their life to dancing tango generally dance to “Golden Age” tango music, which was recorded between 1935 and 1945. The 2 most popular orchestras of that period are Carlos Di Sarli, and Juan D’Arienzo; you can find their music on YouTube, or you can buy it. Listen to tango music, figure out what you like, and what you like about it; listen for the beat and tap it out. Tango music has no drums, so the beat is in the string bass, and sometimes in the piano or other instruments. It may take practice to hear the rhythms. There are many rhythms in tango music – more, and more complex – than in any other dance music. Move to the music; move freely, without patterns or repetitions; tango dance is all improvised, and the best time to start improvising is at the very beginning.
Improvisation is the foundation of the tango dance. It is hard to learn to improvise; human nature is to find patterns and memorize and repeat them. Most dancing is based on learned patterns, but this doesn’t work for tango; the music has too many rhythms, and they are too varied, to memorize them; if you stick to patterns, you can’t be dancing with the music. The bad news is that teachers cannot help you to learn to improvise; you have to learn it on your own, and maybe even force yourself to improvise when it would be so much easier to just learn some figures. I grew up in a dance world where learning figures was the gold standard; when I got into tango I jumped right into learning figures – hundreds of them. I was good at learning figures. I learned figures for 10 years, and suddenly realized that I still couldn’t dance tango, that I was just doing figures. I was devastated. I set out – with great determination – to learn to improvise, and it was hard going. After 4 years of forcing myself to improvise, I now dance 100% improvisationally; I’ve deleted hundreds of figures from my vocabulary, and I can at last dance tango like they do it in Buenos Aires.
When you have a feel for the tango music, pick your favorite Golden Age tango and listen to it many times, to get to know all the rhythms. Find a partner to practice
with; hug each other, then move your feet back a few inches from your partner, and then walk together to the music. Learn to feel where your partner’s feet are, and step straight in line, close to your partner’s toes, but not on them (if you have to, take off your shoes, until you can sense where your partner’s feet are). Once you can walk together, try walking backward and sideways together. Tango is a “close embrace” dance, so the idea here is to get comfortable to moving together in a close embrace.
Keep in mind that tango is not like other dances, with rules, and certain correct ways to do things. Tango, at it’s best, is improvised, and everyone does it different. There are not mistakes in tango, so don’t wonder if you’re doing it right; the wondering interrupts your connection with your partner and the music, and is far worse than anything you could have done wrong. Don’t try to avoid mistakes; don’t think about what you just did; don’t plan what to do next; be fully present in this moment, with your focus on the music and your partner.
The best tango dancers move with the music, and appear to know every beat of every song by heart. This is Musicality. The best tango dancers also seem to have all their attention on their partner; they can feel exactly where their partner is, physically, and know where their momentum is taking them. This comes only with practice, and keeping their attention strongly on their partner. Tango dancers don’t talk, or look around, or do anything which would distract them from rapt attention on their partner. Between songs, they converse casually, but once they enter the embrace, all focus is on their partner. This is Connection.
You, too, can have Musicality and Connection, if you learn the music, and dance with all your attention on the music and your partner. You can also improvise your dance, as long as you don’t fall into the all-too-easy habit of learning figures. Do these few things and you can become a tango dancer surprisingly quickly.
When you’re ready, add different movements to your improvisations, and then mix them in; avoid repetitive sequences; avoid fancy and complex figures; and stay on the path of improvising. Once you can hear the beat, listen for Quick, Quick, Slow patterns; the rhythm of tango music is a mixture of Walking, and Quick, Quick, Slow patterns. At first it seems unpredictable but later you’ll know what is next. For some more moves to try, see https://www.jaytango.com/?p=434 To see what tango dancing looks like, in a milonga in Buenos Aires, see https://youtu.be/9OZNZv7VqJk