The Advanced Class
Movement and Touch
What sets the very best tango dancers apart? When people in the milongas talk about a great male dancer they almost always mention the way he uses the music. I hesitate to say this here, but the ability to feel and dance to the music is so important that there are men who are considered great dancers even though their technique isn’t especially good. Some of the older milongueros from the barrios don’t really pay a lot of attention to posture, or to the discipline required to step and move elegantly, but they are still respected and admired for the creative way they express each piece of music. It’s not always easy to see past technical flaws—it usually takes several trips through a piece of video to find the art in the cadence and movement that lies beneath.
While a certain amount of technical sloppiness is forgiven in the best and most creative of the men, women are judged more strictly. The importance of posture and step can’t be overemphasized for women, and, like it or not, a woman who restricts a leader with poor technique will have problems. But does this mean the woman is simply a tango robot whose role is to move with perfect and mindless precision, while the man expresses his creativity? Not at all. It’s true that the man has more options, because the leader decides when and where to step. But the woman decides how she will step, and the very best women can express a world of tango with their feet. [To put things in perspective, we should note here that we are only discussing the technique of tango—that is, the body mechanics that can be objectively observed. It’s important to remember that this is only the tip of the iceberg of social tango dancing—the big part is lurking beneath the surface. The milongueros sometimes use the word “entrega” to describe it, and both the man and the woman contribute equally to the entrega of tango. We’ll discuss it later.]
So the mark of a great woman tango dancer is how she steps. The first thing people say about a great woman dancer is that she has great feet. What does that mean? Well, it’s difficult to explain. It’s like trying to describe the way a great painter uses a brush, or the way a concert pianist touches the keys. But here are a couple of things to think about.
Like the fingers of a piano player, a woman’s step is about movement and touch. We’ve already talked about the importance of precise and disciplined movement for the woman. “Clean” is a word often used to describe good use of the feet, but it’s more than that. The foot accelerates away from the floor, slows as the ankles pass, and then accelerates again, only to slow again, and return to the floor. Each step is a discreet sequence of accelerating, slowing, accelerating again, and then slowing again. This normally takes place near the floor, and when the foot contacts the floor, it’s with a touch that could almost be described as a caress. It creates the illusion of gliding or floating, but the cadences are clearly marked with each passing of the ankle, and each contact with the floor. The woman may also rotate her ankle at times, and raise or drop the toes. It is within the framework of these movements that the best women dancers show their creativity.
One way to think about the way the ankles should pass each other is to imagine a magnet attached to each ankle. These imaginary magnets would cause the free ankle to move toward the other one as it passes, and also to slow slightly. As an exercise, try to imagine magnets slowing and pulling on the ankles with each pass. In the series of pictures below, Diana has finished the previous step with her left leg out to her left (first picture). El Gallego leads her back, and then out to her left once again (last picture). The three pictures in the middle show her ankles closing together and slowing as they pass, before her foot moves back out to the side. You can also see that she has rotated her ankle slightly in the third picture:
In the first picture, Diana begins with her left leg forward, and out to her left.
Then she brings it back and in so that her ankles brush together...
... and then moves back out as El Gallego leads her back out to her left once again, where she
places her foot on the floor. No matter where he leads her, she will always bring
her ankles together, and slow them slightly as they pass.
The problem with trying to show women’s technique is that the movements are very subtle. You can see from the pictures that Diana hardly raises her foot as she steps. In fact, her foot glides so close to the floor it’s actually difficult to tell when she is moving her foot, and when it is planted.
Graciela reaches and rolls onto the ball of her foot.
In the step above, Graciela reaches with her toe and leg to make the step. Her toe drops slightly just before she touches the floor, and then she rolls smoothly and firmly onto the ball of her foot. This is very much like the step of a cat. The front legs of a cat reach, and then absorb the initial energy of the step with the toes and ankle.
Graciela’s leg remains straight, and the toes and ankle absorb the initial contact with the floor.
The arrow shows that Gerardo can instantly feel when her foot touches the floor.
The arrow above shows that Graciela’s leg is straight at the instant her foot contacts the floor, so the energy is transmitted directly to Gerardo’s chest. She may then bend her knee to prepare for the next step, but her knee should be straight when she contacts the floor. This allows the man to sometimes “feel” the compás through his partner's step. This is not a “clunky” feeling, but a very light, quick pressure, and it must be exactly on the cadence of the music.
On Your Toes
We have shown some pictures of both milongueros and milongueras with their heels off of the floor. Generally, tango dancers step “into” the floor. That is, the heel of the foot that bears the weight is normally down on the floor. If you look again at the sequence of Graciela’s step above, you’ll see that the heel of her right foot is off of the floor. There is nothing wrong with this—it often depends on the situation, and the personal preference of the woman. But generally, most milongueras keep the weight-bearing heel on the floor, most of the time. This is both aesthetic (because tango is danced “down into” the floor), and practical—a heel down position is normally more stable. Look again at this sequence of the feet of the Maestras from the previous page. Most of them keep the weighted heel on the floor:
Most milongueras keep the heel of the weight bearing foot down when possible.