This article will help you learn to
dance the Argentine tango. I have presented all information so that it will
be easy for you to learn and use. Later material builds on previous material
and on knowledge and skills you have from areas outside dance. Also, only
the bare minimum that you need to know is covered at any particular time.
Argentine Tango Dancing covers several subjects, including tango step
patterns. I have broken such patterns down into a few very simple patterns
of no more than three individual steps. I also show you a few easy ways to
vary and combine these very basic patterns. This lets you understand and
learn new complex patterns very quickly and easily. It also lets you make up
The "steps" of a dance are the most visible part of it, so every new student
is eager to learn them. But even if you learn hundreds of steps, you will
only look silly if you learn nothing else about the dance. So these pages
also help you learn the unique style of the Argentine tango, how to lead and
follow, and how to navigate around the dance floor. You will also learn a
little bit about one of the most important parts of any dance - its music.
I believe you will be amazed at how much you learn, and how quickly. Even
after the first lesson, for instance, you should be able to go to a tango
dance party, dance for the entire evening, and have a good time. After the
fourth lesson, you should be able dance with anyone anywhere, as long as you
tell them you only know the basics.
Every dance has its own unique music, and you can't master it without
developing a feel for this music. Elsewhere in these Web pages is
information on what and how to get Argentine tango music that's beautiful
and good for dancing.
But you can get started learning tango now by using music you already have
or can easily get. Pick something that has a slow steady beat. Listen to the
music and count the beats: ONE two THREE four ONE two THREE four. The ONE
and THREE counts mark the major beats of the music and should come about a
Music you could use includes American tango, slow foxtrot, rumba, or even
some slow rock or symphonic music, as long as their characteristic rhythm is
subtle enough to ignore in favor of the Argentine tango rhythm.
Walking is basic to most tango step patterns. This makes it easy to get
started dancing right away, though there is surprising complexity behind
this apparently simple activity. You will learn more about that in each
For now, start the music, close your eyes, and listen for each major beat.
Then begin stepping in place to each major beat. When you feel natural
moving to this rhythm, open your eyes and walk around the room, trying to
step exactly on those major beats. Don't worry about anything else; just
practice this SLOW SLOW rhythm for a few minutes. This rhythm is central to
tango, though as you become more expert you'll learn how to spice up your
dancing by varying this basic rhythm.
Now walk some more. This time, walk counter-clockwise around the outside
edge of the floor. This is called the Line of Dance; it helps dancers avoid
running into each other. (If other people make it impossible or dangerous to
follow the LOD, you may briefly travel against it or even cross the empty
center of the floor, then continue the LOD.) Place obstacles in your path to
simulate people (or imagine them), then curve your walking to the left or
right to go around them.
Argentine tango uses some of the same step patterns as other walking dances,
including freestyle foxtrot, paso doble, quick step - and the Texas Two
Step! But you can instantly tell these dances apart because of the way the
dancers move and relate to their partners.
Practice walking around the room without music, stepping forward onto the
balls of your feet, not onto your heels as you do in ordinary walking and in
many dances. This should help you to feel like a great jungle cat. Keep this
cat image in mind when you're working on aspects of tango style, and soon
when you bring up this image your body will automatically move properly.
Now practice walking BACKWARD along the Line of Dance. Turn your head to the
side to help you see where you're going. Women should look to the right, men
to the left. Straighten your leg a little more than you ordinarily would and
reach back a little further than might feel natural at first. This will help
prevent bumping knees with your partner when you dance. It also adds to the
cat-like look and feel of your walk.
Whether walking backward or forward, keep your weight over the balls of your
feet. You can practice walking on tip-toes to more quickly strengthen the
stabilizer muscles in your toes, feet, and ankles. It will also help you
build the habit of dancing with your weight forward. But when you actually
dance don't do it on tip-toes. This is too tiring. It may also get you out
of the habit of using your heels, something needed in more advanced tango
No other dance connects two people more closely than the Argentine tango,
emotionally as well as physically. Part of this is the dance position. You
face in the same direction (the woman's right, the man's left) and so dance
almost cheek to cheek. You also keep your arms around each other for the
Take your partner (real or imaginary) in a standard dance position. Keeping
your upper body straight, shift your weight onto the balls of your feet.
This will push you and your partner very lightly together, helping weld you
into a couple.
If you're a man, pull your partner toward you with your right hand behind
her back. If you're a woman, place your left hand on your partner's upper
arm just above his biceps and push against him. Both pull and push should be
as gentle as you can make them and still remain firm.
Extend your other arm (the woman's right, the man's left) to the side in the
usual ballroom manner. Do NOT let your arm sink like a lead weight, or flop
around like wet spaghetti. Instead press very lightly against your partner's
hand. During practice you may want to keep your "balance" hand flat against
your partner's palm rather than clasp it. This way any lapse in pressure
will cause your hands to slide apart, giving you instant feedback so you can
quickly fix the problem.
It's a good idea to practice dancing with an imaginary partner with your
arms and hands properly placed. This will strengthen your muscles and habits
so that you can keep a good frame without thinking about it.
Now try walking in the Line of Dance with your (real or imaginary) partner,
the man facing forward along the LOD, the woman backward. Do this first
without music, trying just to keep a good connection with your partner. Keep
your head up and turned slightly to the side, staying aware of your
surroundings as well as your partner. Then turn so that the man can walk
backward along the LOD, and the woman can walk forward along the LOD. Now
walk some more.
Lastly, put on some music and walk around the room in time to the music. Try
to do everything right that you've learned so far, but don't try too hard.
Instead, concentrate on having fun. Because you're dancing, and learning to
have a good time is also part of learning to dance!
Pattern Building Blocks
If you take lessons from several tango teachers and go to all the tango
dances in a large city, you will see literally hundreds of step patterns.
This can be very discouraging until you realize that these complex patterns
are made of a few simple ones by varying and combining them in a few simple
The simplest, most basic tango pattern is la Caminata (the Walk), which
you've already been doing. But now you will see how it is part of a system
of dance patterns. Knowing this system will help you learn new patterns
quickly. It will also help you make up your own patterns.
The building block of the Walk is the Two-Step Walk. There are several
versions of it; the most commonly used is el Paseo (the Stroll). To do it,
start from the Ready position. This means that your feet are close together
and most of your weight is on one foot, leaving the other free to begin
walking. If you're a woman step backward with your right foot then backward
with your left. If you're a man step forward with your left foot then
forward with your right.
Don't leave your legs apart after the second step. Instead bring your free
foot (the woman's right, the man's left) up beside your supporting foot.
Don't put any weight on the free foot. This brings you back to the Ready
position, poised to do another Two-Step Walk or some other pattern.
el Paseo (The Stroll)
Patterns can be varied in several ways. One is by varying the length of each
For instance, if you do both steps of the Two-Step Walk in place, so that
you go nowhere, you've done la Cadencia (the Cadence-Counting step). This is
an important pattern, though it might not seem like it now. Don't forget it;
we'll spend more time on it in later lessons.
la Cadencia (The Cadence-Counting step)
If you do the second step of the Two-Step Walk in place beside your other
foot, you've done la Caza (the Chase). In ballroom dancing this is called
the Chassť (French for "chase") because one foot chases the other.
If you reverse the direction of the second step, so that you return to your
starting position, you've done la Cunita (the Cradle, or Rock step). Don't
stand with your legs apart as you do the rock; bring your feet close
together at the end of each step.
la Caza (The Chase)
la Cunita (The Rock Step)
Practice each of the four types of Two-Step Walks for a minute or two,
pausing between each to make sure you've done each one right. By focusing on
just one at a time, you'll be able to master it faster.
In the Argentine tango you do not do standard step patterns in standard
sequences to a set rhythm. Instead you create new step patterns and combine
them in ways new to you. Creativity and improvisation are valued more than
correctness by the best tango dancers. (When beginning to study tango only
the leaders improvise, but as you become more advanced followers also become
able to do it.)
Since all variations of the Two-Step Walk begin and end with your weight on
the same foot, you can combine them in any number and order. Try putting
several versions of the Two-Step Walk together. Perhaps two Strolls, a
Chase, a Stroll curving 90 degrees to the left (as if to follow the curve of
the floor), and another Stroll.
End by doing three or four or five Rock Steps, pivoting on each step to the
left so that you make a 360 degree counter-clockwise turn. This pattern is
called las Cunitas (the Cradle-Rocking Step). It's useful if your path is
blocked by other dancers. (You can also turn clockwise by pivoting to the
right on each step rather than to the left.)
Notice the feeling the different patterns give. The Stroll lets you travel
and feels smooth. The Chase feels more abrupt. It can be used to mark the
end of phrases of music, the way you use a comma or period in writing. The
Cradle-Rocking pattern can express tenderness because it feels gentle, like
rocking a baby.
El Circulo (the Circle) is another simple pattern that you can make from the
Two-Step Walk. Just do two (or three, or four) Strolls, pivoting always to
the left after each step so that you circle back to the beginning of the
pattern. (You can also pivot to the right to make a clockwise Circle.) Like
Rocking patterns Circles can let you keep dancing when you're blocked in
every direction, but Circles have a different physical and emotional feel.
So far you have been studying to better understand tango and practicing to
improve your technique. But tango is not just an intellectual or athletic
activity. It also has esthetic and emotional and social sides. To learn
these you must dance, even if you only do it in private. Even if you only do
it with a pretend partner!
So start a piece of music that you and your partner like, or request or wait
for one if you're at a dance. Embrace your partner, but don't begin to move
or expect to move right away. Open up a space inside yourself and let the
music fill it, to become part of you. Let your body very subtly "bounce" to
the pulse of the music. Enjoy the melody and whatever singing there might
Also, focus on your partner and your connection with them. Try, but not
hard, to make your frame good. "Listen" to their "body language" and imagine
what they might be experiencing.
Enjoy the feel of your arms around them and theirs around you.
If you're leading the dance, when it feels right - not before - begin
walking. If you're following, don't be anxious to start. Resist (just the
tiniest bit) the leader's efforts. This will actually help your partners
lead you and make it easier for you to follow them.
Keep your head up and stay alert to obstacles and others around you but not
hyper-alert. You have a lifetime of skills that will protect you and others.
When you occasionally bump another couple or your partner say "Sorry!" but
don't make a big deal of it - as long as you didn't kill or maim anyone,
When you or others make a mistake - and everyone does no matter how good
they become - DON'T try to figure it out or work to correct it. You're
supposed to be dancing, not analyzing or practicing technique. Just recover
from the mistake as gracefully and quietly as you can and continue dancing.
As you get better at handling mistakes you'll fear them less. You will also
sometimes discover a step new to you when you recover from a mistake.
As you dance think of yourself as a great jungle cat and your body will
automatically begin to move with the proper tango style. Imagine yourself as
powerful, graceful, and beautiful as the cat. Often you will begin to feel
and move and even look the way you imagine.
The Soul of the Tango
Every dance has its unique flavor. As time goes by and you continue to study
and practice and dance it, tango will become easier and more automatic. You
will be better able to experience el alma del tango - the soul of the tango.
This is a blend of several essences - the flow of creativity that comes from
the unusual freedom in tango to improvise, the agility and precision
nurtured by tango style, the almost operatic intensity of the best tango
music and musicians, and the emotional closeness to your partners.
This feeling, more than mastery of dance mechanics, is what makes an
Argentine tango dancer. And when you begin to feel it you will be one too.
To be continued....next issue