Three Fundamentals of Tango

2010 April 14
by Simba
Brussels Tango Festival - Saturday -Exhi by Peter Forret, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by  Peter Forret

Whenever I hear the postulate that everything in tango is either a step forward, a step backwards or a side step, I get a little irritated. I know what they mean, and it’s not that it is entirely wrong, it’s rather that it is incomplete, and it tends to send people off in a very step oriented direction. But I have written about that before.

Let me instead remind you of three quite different fundamentals in the tango, or maybe rather governing principles. It is a very important insight.  Simple, yet profound.

Dancing the tango, you have three partners. And tango is about embrace, embrace and embrace. In order to dance well, you need to embrace them all:

Embrace your partner

It is all about the woman.  No partner, no dancing. Respect your partner, take care of her and protect her, make it a pleasant experience for her. Listen to her, feel her presence, wishes and desires… In return, she will make you both beautiful.

Embrace the music

The movement has to come from the music. Without music we would just stand there, hugging each other. That can be nice, too, of course, but it wouldn’t be dancing. Listen to what the music tells you and find your inspiration there. Then embrace the music and dance.

Embrace the dance floor

We are not alone on the floor. We are dancing with the other couples on the floor as well. Respect their space, keep moving at a reasonable pace and avoid dangerous movements. (The KISS principle is apt here.)  In return you will feel the energy of the floor. Sometimes people complain about dancers not socializing enough, but as I see it, sharing the floor is also socializing. Embrace your fellow dancers.

The Naveira-Salas model may help you to learn steps. Which can be useful. To learn to dance, you need to learn how to embrace your three partners.

PS: I am talking about social dancing here. For performance/stage dancing, I guess you could substitute dance floor with audience.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 April 14

    Embrace your parnter,

    The woman needs to open up and truly embrace the man as well… :-p

  2. 2010 April 15

    Naturally 🙂

  3. 2010 April 15

    I’m one of those people who’s written the ‘back, foward, side step’ phrase in my blog. When that sentence has been used in a class, and when I repeated it in my blog, it was never meant to be some kind of instruction or description of tango in a broad sense (or even a narrow sense). It was, in the cases I heard it, always used as a way to give perspective to followers in particular, when they get overwhelmed at the seemingly endless possibilities of steps their leader might lead next. It’s a type of stress relief that’s especially useful when followers “lock up” or get frustrated that they feel they have to keep too many things in their head.

    It’s also presented in a context of explaining that it’s the connection that’s important, not the steps. That phrase is, or should be, only one piece of a larger instruction. Taking the sentence out of its context, I think, does a disservice to what the teachers were ultimately trying to convey – at least the teachers that I’ve heard use that phrase.

    Embracing is truly what tango is – on all three levels that you describe. But to a student who has had no exposure to the concept, it’s frequently an abstraction they can’t get their heads around at first. It’s like saying “work on your walk”, “lead with your core” – they’re true statements, but mean nothing to a student who hears that as an abstraction he or she can’t apply.

    Ultimately it’s the instructor’s job to figure out what type of instruction will be most meaningful to their students at any given time. Sometimes breaking down concepts into a (possibly overly) simple construct gives students a place to start.

    Sorry, that was really much longer than I intended it to be. I’m a trainer who trains trainers, so I tend to spout off on instruction topics a little too enthusiastically.

  4. 2010 April 15

    Thank you Mari, if your teachers present it in a proper context, all the better and lucky for you. That it is mainly used to ease the stress level for the women is new to me, though, that is very different from my experience.

    The problem is not the phrase in itself, in or out of context, but what it constitutes. The system, or model that it represents can be useful, as I wrote already. The problem is that even if the teachers using it convey verbally that connection etc is also important, by structuring the lesson around this approach, they implicitly emphasize steps, steps and steps. It is sold as an opener of all the secret doors in tango, but one should be aware that it hides other doors that may prove at least as interesting.

    The (bad) effects of this is, IMHO, very evident in the dancing of many people, on multiple levels. So see this as an attempt to balance it a little.

    The inevitable simplification of tango in presenting it to beginners is a great challenge to instructors, no doubt about that.

  5. 2010 April 19
    Kirra permalink

    It is complicated. You can’t ask a brand-new beginner to embrace properly without first learning frame. You can’t ask them to really dance when they can’t yet hear the music, and you can’t ask them to navigate properly when they don’t know how to walk in a straight line and have the necessary frame to navigate and protect the woman.

    You have to start somewhere, just like a one-year old learning how to walk. Dealing with function first and then flow. I think in the very beginning it starts with steps and as we grow we deconstruct the steps because it is finally feels natural for us to move on the dance floor.

    I get what you are saying that there is too much focus on steps and not enough on navigation, respect and regard. And maybe this was meant for more experienced dancers who should be focusing on connection rather than just learning figure after figure.

  6. 2010 April 19

    @Kirra, yes I mainly had more experienced dancers in mind. I sometimes wonder if it is more about attitude than skill. Even beginners can dance successfully and considerably if they just stay with the basics.

    Teaching beginners forces the teacher to make some tough choices, but it is possible to teach embrace, posture and walking considerately to the music to beginners. Not as they did in the old days, maybe (they would all quit ;-), but it is partly a matter of priorities. Don’t be surprise if there comes another post about this…

    Sometimes it is just plain funny to watch a couple perform all the fancy pasos du jour, but dancing like they were absolute beginners…b

  7. 2010 April 20

    @Simba, yes you hit the nail on the head; it is all about attitude.

    In my limited experiences the beginners seem to understand this concept of simplicity and elegance, even if they can’t execute it well. Dancers in the 2 to 5 year experience seem to want all the steps, like they can’t get enough. If those same dancers (2 to 5 years) have the attitude that they will always be a beginner and be humble and open to the elegance and simplicity they seem to skip over this phase more quickly.

    Fundamentals aren’t sexy (well, I think they are sexy :)) so visiting teachers or regular teachers are trying to appeal to what the students want which is more fancy steps. Which is really hard to do without fundamentals…lol!

    And finally if everyone had that great beginner energy, we would have a much more cohesive tango world, less ego more regard.

    I look forward to a future post!


  8. 2010 April 25
    happyseaurchin permalink

    i think it is a valiant objective
    to ascertain/abstract three principles
    rather than specific moves of forwards backwards etc

    i like your three
    partner music dance-floor
    my three are slightly different
    contract of engagement
    and poise/posture

    glad we confluence on music
    it is the true source of the movement
    it is what gives rise to our emotions
    to the lift of our spirit…
    the movement of our bodies
    both “leader” and “follower”

    from this
    if people are actually moving with respect to the music
    comes a co-ordinated self-organised movement on the dancefloor
    thus giving the impression
    and a certain amount of truth
    to the notion we are dancing together in the room
    i think this is a natural consequence
    we are dancing to the music

    the contract of engagement is what you term as the embrace
    and this differs
    not in relation to some abstract category or style
    but how it fits to the type of music
    staccato suggest close while waltz suggests wide and open

    and finally
    and if each of the dancers have a notion of this
    don’t slouch or lean
    know where their balance is
    wrt to front/balls of the feet or on the back/heels
    this internal sense is required

    if both partners have a sense of their own bodies
    and enter into a mutual contract of engagement
    and give themselves to the music
    the result
    if the conditions are right
    be tango

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