An Introduction to Cadence
Posture, step, and cadence make up the technical part of tango dancing—and all three are linked. Without posture, the step is weak, and without a strong solid step, you can't mark the cadence. Tango is in the details—and bad habits add up. Without good technique, tango becomes blurred... and at some point, it can get so out of focus that it's no longer tango. You may be able to do complicated patterns and athletic figures all over the place, but if there's no tango in your posture and step, it's just aerobics with music. Cadence is especially crucial, because it's our basic link to the music. So let's add some colored spots and some ticks to the videos to look more closely at how we mark the compás.
Tango vs. Vals
In Buenos Aires, regular tango is called tango, or dos por cuatro (and occasionally, the lunfardo word gotan is even used). The waltz version of tango is called vals (or sometimes vals cruzado, which means a waltz danced contra paso—where the man and woman switch out of step).
As far as a dancer is concerned, the basic difference between tango and vals is simple: Tango has one strong beat followed by one weak beat, while vals has one strong beat followed by two weak beats. That’s it. There’s really nothing more you need to know to dance tango. People with musical training or ballroom training tend to use terms like first beat, second beat, third beat etc., or beats per measure, but I prefer to think of it as weak beats in between strong beats. For me it’s an easier way to relate it to stepping, so that’s what we'll use here.
The Dos por Cuatro of Tango
In normal tango walking, we step on the strong beats. We'll use a red spot to show it:
The red spot marks the strong beat of the compás.
Even though we may not step on the weak beats, we need to be aware of them, because we pass over them with every step:
Becoming aware of the weak beats is important, and it will do a lot to help your dancing. One way to get to know them is to listen to tango and concentrate only on the weak beats. Tap your fingers or make a small tik sound to yourself as you listen—but only on the weak beat. When you're comfortable with it, try thinking about it as you dance. Think about where your heels are on the weak beat:
Try listening only to the weak beat of the dos por cuatro when you dance.
In a normal step, your ankles should pass each other right on the weak beat. There are several reasons for this. One is that the weak beat is halfway between the strong beats, so having your ankles synchronized with the weak beat centers you over your feet between each step. And when you combine it with good biomechanical technique, the result is the smooth, subtle rise and fall of the tango walk. It also creates the foundation for an important tool of musical expression, because there are ways of expressing the music that involve changing the time of the heel pass. But obviously you can't do it if your heels don't already pass naturally on the weak beat of the compás to begin with.
In the video below, notice how the mass of my upper body moves up directly over my heels as they pass on the weak beat, and then continues forward and down to mark the strong beat. This is called stepping "into" the floor to mark the compás, and it's one of the classic parts of tango.
We'll mark the weak beats with a blue spot to show what it looks like:
Your heels should pass exactly on the weak beat. This centers and balances you
between each step, and puts you in the compás.
Finally, let's show both the weak and strong of the dos por cuatro. The red spot shows the strong step into the floor, and the blue spot shows where we come over the top on the weak beat in between:
Walking in the compás: The red and blue spots mark the dos por cuatro.
For me it's not only important to hear the weak beat, but also to walk to it. Imagine that your heels have a small counter that makes a tick sound every time they pass. Practice walking and thinking only about the weak beat coming right on the tick as your ankles pass.
The Second Level: Using the Weak Beat
So far we've been expressing the music only by walking rhythmically on the strong beat of the compás. Now, we'll move to the second level of musical expression, and begin to step on the weak beat:
The first tool of musical expression: A quick step on the weak beat.
Here it is with a red spot on the strong beat, and a blue spot on the weak one:
It's a quick step, but try to hit both the strong and the weak beats sharply.
Here it is in slow motion: Try to maintain good technique and hit each step sharply on a straight leg.