Note: My profesora, Mariangeles Di Paola, now has a website. If you want some help learning tango lyrics, you can find her at: grammaramaspanishclasses.com
The first, and most important, reason for my email is to say thank you for your website. It offers an incredible wealth of information to help understand tango, and not just in terms of how to dance, but also in terms of the people and culture, I found myself laughing along with things like the milongueros attempting to get Alej dizzy only to end up needing to slow down themselves.
Also, after having watched many tango videos, I can now say I've found my current favorite. It is the one of Ricardo and Alej dancing to Adios Arrabal. I had skipped Chapter 5 temporarily, so I saw this first and my immediate reaction was "This is what tango is supposed to look like". It is obvious that the two have a wonderful connection with each other, and their connection with the compás is truly a work of art. Also, D'Agostino's version of Adios Arrabal is one of the most beautiful tangos (or songs of any genre for that matter) that I've heard.
The second reason for sending this email is that in going through your website, a question has occurred to me that hadn't come up in my nine months of dancing so far. You mention at multiple points that the lower body should express the compás, while the upper body should express the melody. I apologize if I missed it, but I don't think I've seen an explanation of how the upper body expresses the melody that has made it clear to me. I understand that the upper body will move up and down based on the steps as you've described, but the timing of this movement will be with the compás, is it the magnitude of the movement that expresses the melody? I could also understand if you were referring to rotation of the upper body, but it seems to me that this will be dictated in large part by navigational issues rather than just the music.
I feel like I'm missing something on this one. If you have time, is there anything (video or explanation) that you might be able to point to to help clarify?
One of the great things about tango is that everyone can decide for themselves what the music means, and how to dance to it. I’m not a musician or a professional dancer, so keep in mind that the things I write are just personal interpretations of what I see and hear in the milongas.
For dance purposes, I basically divide the music into two parts: the compás (the 2x4 beat which doesn’t really change much), and the words and melody (which work within and around the compás). If you think of the music that way, then you can use your (and your partner’s) feet to express the compás by stepping on some beats, skipping some beats, and adding small steps in between. But that still leaves the the melody and lyrics. You might think of the expression of the melody and the lyrics as that part of the physical movement left for you, beyond what you express by striking your feet on the floor.
When you sit and listen to music, you might tap your hand to the rhythm like a drummer. But you could also take your other hand and move it around in the air to follow the melody. Exactly how or why is up to you, but you could move it rapidly or slowly, smoothly or sharply, up and down, or side to side. You might vary the intensity with large sweeping movements, or with small precise movements, depending on what you hear and feel. It might be similar to the way a conductor moves his baton. He’s within the compás, but he’s expressing much more by moving his hands through space.
When you watch the best milongueros, you should practice finding the compás in the way their feet strike the floor. But you should also pay attention to the way the couple’s bodies flow around the room—speeding and slowing by changing the length of the steps, subtley rising and falling, or changing their direction and the rates of their turns. (This is all limited by other couples dancing nearby, which is, of course, a big part of the art of tango dancing.)
As far as Ricardo Vidort, when I look at the videos, I think of the famous saying about Carlos Gardel—that even though he's gone, he just keeps getting better. Milongueros like Ricardo were so different because they came from a time and place where tango was everything. It was a time when there were hundreds of other talented dancers who drove them to get better—and since there wasn't much else to do, they put everything into it.
In a sense, people like Ricardo even influenced the music. The composers and orchestras watched what they were doing in the milongas, and designed music that would go with their way of dancing. Because Ricardo and the other milongueros dedicated their lives to tango, they understood it in a way that would be impossible today.
When I was around 26 I heard someone talking about being 50 years old, and I remember saying something like, "Fifty? Who wants to be fifty? You might as well be dead." Luckily, I made it to 50—and it's not that bad. Better than being dead, at least.
But she does have a point. Young people have lots of energy, and they like to show what they can do. That's the way the world works. The new tango they're teaching has a lot of movement and it’s designed to conform to current fashion, so it will naturally be more appealing to young students. But I think you need to be careful about trying too hard to look cool. Fashion changes, and what's cool today can begin to look dorky in a few years. In fact, I’m kind of glad the cool things I did when I was 26 aren’t preserved on video and posted somewhere on the Internet.
Somewhere on the site I seem to remember you say that since tango (the music) is well-preserved, the dance hardly needs preserving on film, since it's implicit in the music. Apologies if I've misunderstood... but I'm not sure about that. Fantasia is how some people interpret the music, and filming the older dancers reminds us of another way to interpret the same music. I think the dance anyone makes is always going to reflect the dance and cultural background of their time, as well as their own personality.
My point was that people who choose to dance to the Golden Age tangos in milongas will almost always end up expressing the music in a similar way. It may take a long time, and of course it will reflect some elements of their current culture, but I believe that the limits imposed by the music and the conditions in a milonga will eventually result in a specific kind of dancing that will always contain the kind of elements we’ve described in the chapters on technique. I usually use the term "social tango" to describe it, but you could also call it tango salon, or tango milonguero.
Tango fantasia, however, is a different animal. (I also use the terms "academic tango", or "workshop tango".) People who prefer it tend to think of tango as a performing art, and focus more on the way it looks from the outside. Social tango and academic tango have separate and distinct objectives, and they require separate and distinct skills. They’re as different as tennis and golf—but it may take awhile to become attuned to the differences.
If you look at the video of Milonguero X dancing to La Maleva in chapter 6, it may not appear especially exciting or elegant. But X doesn’t care, because he’s not trying to entertain anyone. His goal is to move to the music, and share what he’s feeling with his partner. If you’re able to really listen to Troilo's music, and watch the way the couple focuses on communicating the melody and compás through the embrace, you’ll see two people involved in a masterful and complex piece of dancing—and enjoying themselves as well.
Now, go to YouTube and pick one of the exhibitions posted there. It probably has dramatic figures, leg swings, fast kicks, stylized stepping, posing, gesturing... all sorts of things. The dancing is almost uniformly energetic, highly rehearsed, and focused outward on an audience. As you said, it reflects the specific time and culture of the people who are dancing—in other words, it's fashionable. It's tango fantasia, and it constantly changes with the whims of popular taste. But social tango doesn't change much because it's tied so closely to a specific body of music. It may never look especially cool or fashionable, but then it will never look that bad either. It is what it is—the physical expression of Golden Age music shared within the crowded, social confines of a milonga.
Dan Boccia here from Anchorage. It's been awhile, no? Awhile back someone told me about a beautiful vals they heard on your site, Idilio Trunco by Tanturi/Castillo. I finally remembered to look for it today. You have it listed by Tanturi/Castillo, but it's actually by Castillo's orchestra after he left Tanturi. I could tell the second I heard it that it was not Tanturi.
Fun looking through your site. I must admit I'm more focused on skiing right now than tango, but I'm still dancing, DJing, and having a lot of fun with tango. Big hugs to both of you!
NIce to hear from you Dan. Skiing and tango—tough life!
You’re right, it’s not Tanturi’s orchestra. Some places, like the link you provided, list it as “Orquesta Tipica” (a tango orchestra), and others list it as “Su Orquesta” (Castillo’s orchestra). But according to Osvaldo Natucci, who is my reference for things musical in tango, Emilio Balcarce was actually the orchestra leader. Natu’s usually right, so for now, that’s who I’ll put on the music control. (Emilio Balcarce is the very nice man who is the subject of the tango documentary “Si Sos Brujo”)
Reading your translations alongside the songs it seems that the singing style of tango is different from the word-per-note of most European songs. In fact it seems more like rapping, a speech rhythm to music. I wonder if singers have anything to say about the phrasing of lines.
I'm far from an expert, so you can take this answer for what its worth:
Music is made up of beats, and words are made up of syllables. The simplest singing might be one beat of music per syllable: “Old-Mac-Don-ald-had-a-farm.” “1-2-3-4-5-6-7”. But that’s only a children’s song, and It quickly gets much more complicated. Musical notes are often held for more than one beat, and singers often do the same thing with words. Sometimes they draw words out across beats of the orchestra, and sometimes they pack syllables quickly between the beats. And sometimes, as in the first verses of Paisaje in Chapter 4, the poetic nature of tango lyrics causes the cadence of the words to become disconnected from the music.
I have an intuitive understanding of the relationship between singer and orchestra in some of the tangos, and I also know some techniques for expressing it on the floor, but it’s complicated. I'll discuss it in more detail when I understand it better, and can explain it more clearly. For now I would suggest becoming aware of the places where the singer’s voice strays from the beat laid down by the orchestra—places where he draws out words, or packs in more syllables. And you might also begin to listen for syncopations. A syncopation is where the orchestra plays a strong beat when you would normally expect to hear a weak one. Biaggi is the maestro of tango syncopation, and he uses it to create some nice opportunities for dancing.
The more you listen, the more you’ll become aware of the connection to voice and cadence in tango. For instance in Aidos Arrabal, notice how Vargas changes the syllables of the first two words. Instead of singing:
Mañanita arrabalera (Sweet arrabal morning),
He sings this:
If you listen closely, you’ll find he’s combined the two ‘a’ beats into one, and subtracted a syllable. It’s a small thing, but it’s interesting. Every time I hear the tango I notice it.
It's also important to pick up details in the music itself. Try listening for the unexpected strong beats in Biaggi. They sound sort of like hiccups. The first step is to identify them. Then you need to remember where they are so you can anticipate them. The final step is doing something with them—but that's a big leap.
I found your recent response on "Three Myths" a bit harsh... but then last night I was dancing and watching, and I couldn't help but agree with you. What a hash people have made of the tango!
Tango sometimes goes off in different directions around the world. People put a lot of energy and emotion into tango, and form groups that begin to do different things. They reinforce each other’s ideas, and after awhile, other tango begins to look silly to them. Eventually, they become convinced that the tango they’re familiar with is tango.
Alej and I are no exception. Our group is made up of the tens of thousands of people who dance tango in Buenos Aires. We see tango pretty much the way they do—and the way their parents, and the parents of their parents saw it. There may be places in the world where our view of tango seems extreme or conservative, but that’s how we see it.
Many thanks for the translation of Paisaje. I was listening half-asleep on a night train last year, and it suddenly caught my ear, and I spent the rest of the journey, an hour, listening over and over. It's just an amazing arrangement: that singing intro, the six low violin notes, the bandoneon surging up, the strings carrying on the movement up to the piano at the top... then the song, the repeat of the orchestra, the final verse. And now I know what the wonderful song is about.
Another great favorite from much the same stable is Recién. Several times I've tried to puzzle out the meaning...
You’re referring to the Laurenz / Podestá version of Recién, but the version I know best from the milongas is by Tanturi with Campos. Recién means "recently". It’s about a man who has recently come back to the woman he loves. Here's a short summary in English:
"Recently… recently, now that I’ve returned to your side, defeated and injured, I realize how much I need you, and how much I hurt you. You loved me so much, but I wasn’t ready... so I preferred not to see you anymore (...preferí no verte más!) Now I’ve learned more about life, and I want you back."
The words are by Homero Manzi—and I'm a Manzi fan. I've been by his old house, and I've even found and taken photos of the little hill Manoblanca and Porteñito climbed in the famous tango. My summary doesn't begin to do this tango justice, but let me add two things. He says something like, "when I was young I stumbled down the streets of deception". And, "In your serene hands... I found the punishment of your forgiveness." Subtle and beautiful words.
I very much enjoy reading your web site. It is a wealth of knowledge for beginners like me. Thank you for all your hard work putting it together!
I have one request. Can you take every word that is in italics (such as "entrega" at the end of Chapter 6) and make a rollover that displays the definition in English in the context in which it is used? Your site is probably the best Tango site on the Web but there are many foreign terms on your site that I have trouble finding the definitions for. (I hope I don't insult you with my frustrated request.) Many many thanks!
Thanks for your nice email! I’ve thought about adding a glossary, but I’m not sure if the software I’m using supports adding rollovers. I’ll check into the possibilities. In the mean time, I think most of the foreign words I use are discussed in detail in different places on the site. For now, try putting the word you want along with “tangoandchaos” in Google. Searching that way may bring up a page with more information.
I wondered if someone would notice that. Since most people reading the page probably live in the Northern Hemisphere, where April is spring, I decided I would just translate it as autumn to avoid confusion. Surprising how many editorial decisions you have to make to translate a tango.
1. "If it's crowded I dance milonguero style tango, but later in the evening, I like to dance other styles."
I don't know any social dancers who wait for the floor to clear so they can dance some other kind of tango. I've never seen it happen in Buenos Aires. I also don't know any good social dancers who say they dance "milonguero style tango"—or, for that matter, who say they dance any "style" of tango.
2. "We dance alternative tango in a milonga with no problems. We control our dancing, and when there's space, we get more creative."
Translation: "If I didn't kick you, I didn't bother you." This is the rationale of people who do what they want in milongas. They may not bother anyone when it's early and there's no one on the floor, but as it begins to get more crowded, whether they know it or not, they do bother other dancers. As far as academic dancing being more creative, I've heard this argument—but to me, it looks mostly like choreography from workshops.
3. "There is no room in tango for prejudice, discrimination, or closed minds. Milongas should be open to everyone."
Prejudice and discrimination apply to things like race and religion—not to the way someone decides to dance. You can't go into a chess club and insist on playing dominoes. And a beginning basketball player can't expect to walk into a gym and join a pick-up game with college and pro level players. To dance in a milonga you need a certain level of competence, and you need to respect the codigos.
I’m happy to see you are writing about Libertad Lamarque. I like her a lot! We have been listening over and over again to her singing Y Todavia Te Quiero with D’Arienzo’s orchestra. Such pain, such suffering—it’s convincing and heartbreaking. You can listen to it on Todotango.
Last year we visited some tango museums in BA. One of them was located in a culture center downtown. The museum was closed, but we were asked to sit down and wait. Fifteen minutes later an old, very gentle and friendly man appeared. It seemed to be his museum. It was one room with lots of photos and instruments from famous orchestras.
We understood that he had been an orchestra leader himself, but he hadn’t been playing for ages, and he had joint problems and pain in his shoulders. Yet he unlocked a cupboard and took out an old bandoneon. His fingers were initially stiff but as he was playing they worked better and better. He played Y Todavia Te Quiero, and we were deeply moved. When we were leaving we got a CD with his orchestra. Not until we reached the hotel did we realize that we had met the Luciano Leocata, the composer of Y Todavia Te Quiero! ¡Abrazos!
Libertad Lemarque sings Tristezas de la Calle Corrientes like a wound bleeding with sorrow! ¡Que dolor!
Thank you both for the comments—and what a nice story, Hjördis. How lucky you were! It's amazing that the great maestros who left us such a beautiful gift are so humble. Yesterday I heard Alberto Podestá on the radio, and he reminded me of two of the other surviving maestros I’m familiar with, Emilio Balcarce, and Horacio Salgan. They seem to be such unassuming and gentle men. (The next page we’ll do in Chapter 4 will be a Podestá vals.)
I just can't stop laughing at your Kung Fu Tanda page!! And I think your latest post, The Bratboy Effect, is the most important post you have written on this site. Truly wonderful. I have been dancing for about five years—with a very good teacher who teaches Social Tango. I danced pretty well in B.A. last year, and was even approached by some respected Milongueros who asked my wife and I who we study with in the U.S. They liked our "style" and we were flattered. We keep it "simple", with just enough color and elements to express the music.
Please come to L.A. to talk to our community!!! I know that's not going to happen—I’m sure you are busy—so keep posting. Some of us are actually listening! But In closing, I must disagree with you on one point: The nuevo-academic dancers are NOT winning the tango revolution!
Mark, thank you for your very nice email. The first time I went to a milonga in the U.S. with Alej, we saw some people struggling with steps, and she asked me what they were doing. When I told her they were beginners who were still learning, she shook her head and said, “But why are they here? They shouldn’t be in a milonga.” At the time, I thought it sounded a little mean—but now, I understand it.
A milonga isn’t a party, and it’s not an event you hold in a bar or restaurant to show off or promote tango. For many years, men had to serve an apprenticeship before they could even go through the door of a milonga. Today, things are more relaxed, but in the places Alej and I go, you’re still expected to know how to dance, and play by the rules. It’s the only way a milonga can function. But many people outside of BsAs don't like the idea that tango has rules. For them, a milonga is simply a dance party, and if you disagree, they’ll respond like the lady in Tucson: “Egos! Party poopers! Who needs you?”
I’ve been watching tango in the U.S. for about ten years, but I don’t see much progress. It's true that there are dedicated people in both the U.S. and Europe who understand tango, and work hard to teach and organize milongas. But trying to transplant a complex piece of culture from one country to another is very difficult, and their efforts are constantly being undermined by other teachers.
Most teachers come from the worldwide system of workshops promoted by the tango stars. They don't know the codigos and traditions of tango, and it’s not in their interest to learn them. They want to appeal to as many students as possible, and the best way to do that is to teach patterns and stage figures. Some call it Nuevo, or Urquiza Style, or Tango Salon. And some, like the teachers in Tucson, simply call it “authentic Argentine tango”—even though it has virtually nothing to do with the tango in Argentina. These teachers turn out thousands of students, and it only takes a handful of them to ruin a milonga and drive serious dancers away. That's why it sometimes it seems like the revolutionaries—the people promoting tango workshops based on stage figures—are winning.
Thank you for the great job with your site. Please drive carefully—we all need you :-) I read the latest addition to Chapter 6 (Making Tango Work), and I want to ask how much in your dancing is improvisation, versus learned standard steps? In other words, when you make a step, do you know what your next 2-3-4 steps will be, or is this a pure improvisation, and you just step freely in any direction where you see an open space on the floor, without applying any of the previously learned patterns?
The broader question is: To dance well on the crowded floor, how important is it to first learn the standard patterns (steps), and to what extent and how exactly do you apply them in a milonga? I've heard good dancers say that whenever they make a step, they always know (from experience and training) what patterns are available with this step, and they never venture into an unchartered territory of making steps they've never done before. They say that you have to dance a step or a pattern before to master it in terms of the timing of your lead, and if you haven't, don't try it in a milonga. This makes sense if you view tango as writing a sentence, and you have to know letters (patterns) to do that. But I'm having trouble with this analogy, because it implies that tango is so structured that everybody dances the same "words."
Almost everyone begins tango with memorized patterns and figures. (I think even the milongueros began that way.) This is called “academic” tango, and it sounds to me like that’s what your friends are describing. At an advanced level, academic tango is made up of complex combinations and highly polished steps. People sometimes link them together in milongas, but it’s still basically choreography.
Watching academic tango is like watching a basketball team practice. In practice, teams run perfect patterns, and make pretty shots. It’s mildly interesting, but it doesn't have the sloppy, exciting spontaneity of a real game. People often analyze and discuss tango exhibitions as if they are extremely important, but to me they’re really nothing more than watching people practice. Ultimately, they don’t mean much.
It may take thousands of hours in milongas, but eventually, steps and patterns will begin to fall away, and a spontaneous expression of the music will emerge. A good social dancer is almost never thinking 4 or 5 steps ahead, and he’s not thinking about figures. The closest thing to a figure might be a giro, which takes about 3 steps (or beats)—and he might vary it a dozen different ways, depending on the music he hears as he does it. He may be thinking a little ahead about something coming up in the music, but basically, he's absorbing what he hears, feeling the flow around him, and responding in the moment.
I suppose I could go on with analogies forever, but since you mentioned making sentences, let me try this: Some people are good at making prepared speeches, or reciting lines in a play. But speaking spontaneously in conversation is a different skill. People are sometimes surprised to find that actors who are compelling on screen, may be somewhat boring in person. On the other hand, there are people who may not be able to act or deliver prepared speeches, but they are fascinating, intelligent conversationalists.
Delivering rehearsed lines is a different skill than spontaneous conversation, just as academic tango requires different skills than social tango. In the beginning, most of us learn language by memorizing words and putting them together mechanically. This is fine for a speech or a play, but we also need to express feelings and ideas without planning each sentence. Good social tango is learning to express our feelings quickly and articulately, without using prepared notes.
Sorry to write in English, Alejandra, but after 30 years in London, it comes more easily than my native Spanish from Medellín, Colombia, the tango capital of the world (at least that’s what we say). In Medellín tango is all around, but not in a big-time, noticeable way. It is just part of life. It's just there. People love tango, people know the words, that sort of thing. [Note: Medellín is where Carlos Gardel died when his plane crashed on take-off in 1935.]
I just finished reading your Tango and Chaos, which I downloaded late one night in London, and read on my way down to Buenos Aires. What a fantastic way to get back into the mood of the place. I recognized so many of the names, but particularly Ricardo Vidort. I met him in London so many times, had classes with him and once he even asked me to dance in BsAs! I am not anywhere near his level, but he was always very nice. After our dance he said: “Ya estás hecha toda una milonguera”. That is just the sort of person he was. And he is much missed.
I want to thank you for writing your notes. It was great to read them. They really reflect the tango world here and it was a great joy to read them, to learn more about the history (people like Fino, Petroleo, etc.). It was also very useful to point out the lines of dance, the milonguero's feet, etc. I am totally envious of your films, which we will never see!
I would like to ask your advice. I need to learn to walk and lead like a milonguero. Any suggestions/ideas? Please don’t suggest $300 US per hour people! Most of my classes in the past have been with real people who charge in pesos. The only awful one was with someone with a big name who charged an awful lot of dollars and brought an assistant who insisted I had to learn boleos! Un gran abrazo a los dos y los mejores deseos.
One of the interesting things about social tango is the different role played by men and women. Apart from the most obvious difference of leading and following, when tango is danced the right way, there’s a difference in the way the man and the woman step. This contrast is one of the things I used to look for in deciding which couples to film in milongas, and we’ve discussed it at length on the site.
Unlike social tango, academic tango is mostly “unisex”. That is, if you look at the stage tango examples we've posted, you’ll notice that there isn’t much difference in technique between the men and women. They each do their own half of the patterns and figures, but other than the woman tending to walk backwards more, her technique is almost a mirror image of the man’s. They could switch roles, and it wouldn’t look much different.
The walking technique used in social tango, on the other hand, is a reflection of the traditional roles of men and women. The man takes a somewhat aggressive, chest-forward, step that goes down into the floor in a way that would probably be considered masculine in almost every society, while the woman moves in a smoother, lighter, more cat-like way that's thought of as more feminine. For a woman to lead well in social tango would require that she master a way of stepping similar to the men’s walking examples in Chapter 6, and then put in years of dancing in crowded milongas to learn both music and navigation. So far this has never happened—but that doesn't mean there are no women who lead tango in BsAs. Celia Blanco is considered the best woman leader. Like several other women, she leads because she needs to do it to teach. Elba Biscay also leads, but she does it for fun.
Both Celia and Elba are physically strong women, and both are very respected dancers who have been dancing a long time. I’ve danced next to both Elba and Celia when they are leading, and they’re okay—but the truth is, they’re not real great at navigation. Celia used to lead her waitresses (who were also her students) during the last tanda of the night when there were only a few friends left on the floor.
Elba doesn’t lead women in milongas, but she does it for fun at parties. I have some funny video of her leading Alejandra while the milongueros laugh and tease her. It was a little crowded, and she makes it through about half a tango before running into somebody. (I just found the video, and the somebody she ran into was Jorge Orellana. Years ago Jorge and his wife were best friends with Petroleo and Marta, and they went to milongas together and always shared a table. Glad it wasn't me that ran into him.)
I am taking a tango class in The Netherlands. I do the class for an hour each week with my partner, then go to the "Tango Salon" for the next hour to dance a bit, but mainly watch. The teachers and dancers seem to come right out of your characterizations of how "not to do it." But this is the tango environment in which I need to grow, so I wanted to confirm some points.
1. They say here, "walk level, as though you have a book balanced on your head." This seems at odds with what you write about harmonic motion in walking, no?
2. They tend to shuffle their feet here, making sliding noises often (It is considered good form to keep the feet near the ground.) This shuffling seems at odds with the clean step you advocate. Or am I missing something?
3. They teach the tango with an "open frame", no chest contact. To be clear, in real social tango, there is direct chest contact, right?
1.Walking level: Rising and falling with each step is a fundamental way of expressing tango. I see it, or some elements of it, in almost all of the great tango dancers—social or stage. I know it’s popular to dance “level” in some places today (Pablo Pugliese's dancing on page 31 is a good example). But to me, walking “flat” in tango is like playing the same note all the time. It limits the way you express both the compás, and also the “hard-soft” of the Golden Age music. And although this may not be important to a lot of people, "walking level" is at odds with the traditional way of stepping of the both great milongueros of the last generation, like Fino and Pepito Avellaneda, and with the best milongueros dancing today.
2. Shuffling the feet: Good tango dancing is based on marking the compás cleanly. When you combine it with good posture and step technique, everything else will eventually fall into place. It's the foundation that lets you express the music through your chest. There are times when you might step softly, or drag your feet to express certain things in the music, but generally, shuffling is like slurring your words. It adds static, and it takes away clarity from your dancing.
3. Dancing "open": Almost no one does it here. It may exist in some practicas and classes, and a couple of the late night nuevo milongas, but if you use it in the regular milongas, people won’t dance with you. I think it’s harder to navigate and express the subtleties of the music when dancing separated—but it’s more than that. When I look at the best dancers here, whether it’s Ismael embracing and carrying his partner around the floor, Ricardo doing 17-run corridas with Alej, or El Chino’s beautiful pausing and walking with Noemi Yodice, I find it hard to imagine dancing that way separated. It may be theoretically possible, but it certainly wouldn’t be the same. Embracing and moving together is at the core of social tango. Dancing separately is probably better for choreographed figures and exhibitions, but for most people here, it’s not part of the milongas.
I noticed that your questions were addressed to me as an advocate of “real social tango”. It bothered me a little, so I Googled “real tango”—and sure enough, I've used the phrase on this site a few times. It doesn’t sound very good, does it? Sometimes I get worked up and state things in a strong way, but I really have no business “advocating” my vision of “real tango” to you, or anyone else new to tango.
I know from experience that it’s not much fun to go off in a different direction from the rest of your tango community, so let me suggest this: There are lots and lots of ways to dance tango. The answers I gave come from things I see in the dancers I respect—but it’s best for you to decide for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the people and the dancing you have in your community. You can go in all sorts of different directions, and it shouldn't hurt your dancing. In fact, it may help it. I wouldn’t be too concerned with goals. I think the important thing is to keep your eyes and ears open, and enjoy learning. In the end, your tango will go where it’s going to go.
Here is a comment about music: In places you refer to changes in "volume" of the music. Musicians don't talk about "volume" so much as "dynamics". These two terms are related, but not the same. A dynamic change from "piano" to "forte" would include an increase in physical sound intensity, but also in the way of playing, to give an illusion of greater intensity. Likewise, getting softer reduces intensity, but there is more to it than this, exactly in the sense that a whisper is different from a shout in more than intensity. You can record a shout and play it at a low volume, but it will still be a shout, not a whisper. Thanks again for you site!
My lack of music education is showing. I’m starting to hear more and more things in the music, but I don’t have the words to describe them. Thanks to your clear explanation, I think I now hear different “dynamics” in Biaggi’s piano. I can hear that as he strikes the keys harder, the character of the sound changes. I can turn down the volume on my speaker, but the difference in the sound is still there. Part of it is independent of where you set the volume.
Could there be a more sophisticated or subtle, version of this in some of Troilo’s playing? There’s an incredible part at the end of La Maleva (Chapter 6, page 20) that I’ve recently begun to notice. I was going to use the word "volume" changes to describe what's happening, but now I think it's "dynamics” (probably along with other things).
I recently wrote to a musician in Australia in an attempt to understand what Troilo meant when he used the term “dragging the music"—but his answer was too technical for me. I’m not sure if “dragging” is peculiar to tango, or maybe even just to Troilo. If there’s anyone who can give a clear explanation of it in terms a non-musician could understand, I would appreciate it.
My tango classes are just a bunch of sequences and figures, and the occasional correction of posture. I've been to a lot of classes where a figure or sequence is taught, and then some variations are taught. At the end, the teacher might then say dance it to music, or follow the beat at the end. Most of the teachers in London are stage Tango dancers, and their experience puts them somewhere in between me and the Milongueros. So can I look at them as an in-between for now, and try to reach their level?
I'm almost certain that learning figures and sequences in a class won't help you in a milonga. That kind of dancing only works when it's well rehearsed and choreographed to a specific piece of music. Students enjoy learning and practicing it, but in a milonga, it inevitably gets out of sync with the music, and ends up looking like crap. You'll either be out of the music all the time, or you'll do the kind of tango where you stand and wait, pick up a bit of music and try to make something fit. Then you’ll have to wait for something else. In the process, you'll get in the way of people who are actually trying to dance.
The milongueros helped me a lot with things like the codigos and the music. And they have a very good eye for technique. If you’re doing something wrong, they’ll spot it. They may not walk right up and correct you, but if they like you, they’ll always find a way to straighten you out. It may come through someone else, or they may just keep doing something in front of you until you finally get it. But they’ll always help.
They know how to teach this way because it’s how they learned. It's a tradition that began a hundred years ago with their grandfathers, and they love tango enough to continue it.
I wish I knew. The way the different generations of milongueros danced when they were young, and then grew and progressed, is the story of the growth of tango itself. Unfortunately there's no film, so the only record is in their memories. I’ve discussed it with several of them, but the problem is that memories change and fade—and words can't really describe the subtleties of tango dancing anyway. And of course, you can’t generalize about the way the milongueros danced 50 years ago—or even today. You can say they all use the floor and the music masterfully, but beyond that, you need film. There’s too much variety to generalize.
I doubt it. I don’t know your teachers, but they may be similar to the ones I’ve seen in the U.S. who began by taking dance classes. When they heard about Argentine tango, they began to teach it using step patterns similar to those used in commercial dance studios, and they copied tango performances so they could give exhibitions and bring in new students. I lived in a place where there were people who went from taking their first dance lesson to teaching tango classes in about a year. Most of them had never been to Argentina, or even met an Argentine. Let's compare them to a couple of the milongueros we saw in the milonga last night. (There's video of them on this site, but I won't identify them here):
Milonguero "A" is a prominent lawyer downtown, and he probably dances more than anyone in BsAs. He's in the milongas 4 hours per day, 7 days a week. And when he's in a milonga, he dances almost every tanda. He's a very nice man, and he's also a walking encyclopedia of tango. Whenever I have a question about the music, he has the answer—but I have to ask him on the floor between tangos, because he's almost never sitting down. Alej once asked him how he knew so much about the music, and here's what he said:
"When I was a boy, all I wanted to do was dance tango like my older brother. But they wouldn't let me go to the milongas because I was too young. I kept after them, until finally they said, 'You can go, but first, you must learn all the music, the lyrics, and the orchestras.' They didn't think anyone could do it. But I sat down and learned every bit of it. Then, they had to let me go!"
That happened in 1939. He may have been the youngest person allowed to dance in the milongas during the Golden Age of tango!
Last night, I noticed that Milonguero "B" was sitting against the wall and not dancing, so I mentioned to Alej that I hoped he wasn't sick. She knows everything that's going on, and she said, "No, he's not dancing because there aren't any women here for him to dance with. Milonguero "B" is a friend of ours, but I knew he wouldn't ask Alej to dance when she was with me, so I said, "Why don't you go over and ask him his favorite music, and tell him you'll dance with him when it comes on." (This is a codigo violation, but there are exceptions between friends.)
So she went over, but instead of waiting until later, I saw them get right up to dance. When they were on the floor, she asked between tangos if the music they were dancing to was really his favorite, or if he just got up to be polite because she came over. Here's his answer:
"No. This orchestra really is my favorite. I first heard them when I was a boy, and the music knocked me over. I fell in love with it. But I didn't have any money, so I used to stand outside on the sidewalks in front of milongas to listen. The orchestra leader must have noticed me, because one night, one of the musicians came out and said, 'Meet us tomorrow, and you can ride the bus with us to a milonga.' The next night, I rode with them, and they gave me an empty instrument case to carry, so I could slip in the door with them. After that, I went everywhere with them."
The conductor who made him part of the orchestra was Anibal Troilo. Milonguero "B" became the mascot of Troilo and Fiorentino in the early 1940s, so he began going to milongas with possibly the greatest orchestra in the history of tango.
I could give more examples, but the point is that it's unlikely that there's any similarity between your teachers and the milongueros. There's too much difference in knowledge and experience. Looking for similarities between them is like looking for similarities between someone who's played checkers for a few weeks, and a chess Grandmaster.
What an excellent question! It goes right to the core of tango dancing, because picking up new things, and leaving other things behind, is how a dancer creates tango. But the question is... where do the new things come from? And how do we decide what to throw out?
I can think of three ways our dancing grows: By copying things from other dancers (including instructors in workshops), by responding to new things we hear in the music as we dance, and by making unexpected changes of direction to avoid other dancers.
Copying: The first way, copying other dancers, is a good one. I spent years doing it, and so did the milongueros. All of them know hundreds of steps that they they picked from other dancers—but they use very few of them. They tried them out, kept the ones that worked, and left the rest behind.
The music: This is probably the best way, but it takes lots and lots of dancing. If you go to the milongas enough, you’ll begin to hear new things in the music. And if your technique is good, your body will eventually begin to respond to the things you hear. You may find yourself unconsciously doing a quick corridita, or pivoting and turning in a new way. Often, you'll just make a small adjustment, like softening the way you step at a certain place in the music. One thing that can speed up this process is to listen to a tango a lot, and move to it when you're by yourself. We give a short example of this in Chapter 4.
Navigation: The third way to add to your dancing is the most interesting. For a long time, I’ve known that good floor navigation helps your dancing, but I wasn’t sure why. Now, as we work on the navigation pages in Chapter 6, I see the reason! When we dance a lot, we tend to fall into repeating patterns. Being forced to make instant, unexpected moves to avoid other dancers breaks up those patterns—and in certain rare instances, you’ll do something unexpected that feels right. It will work, and you’ll begin to use it regularly.
Copying is an artificial way to add to your dancing. It works, but you must be very careful to try everything out in a milonga, and see if it fits you. If it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to leave it behind. It’s like shopping for clothes. You can try on as many as you want, but before you take something home, you need to be sure it fits, and it’s really what you want. If it's not, you need to get rid of it. You need to be especially careful in workshops and classes today, because most of the things they’re selling are trash. They may look good in class, but they’ll make you look bad in a milonga.
What happens to the old steps people throw out?
Used steps go to the Salvation Army, where they're cleaned up and resold in second hand shops. We’ll discuss the third method, learning through navigation, in Chapter 6, and put a link here when it's ready.
Hola! I've been wandering the halls of the Internet, picking up pieces of tango lying here and there, and have been for some time hoping to become more familiar with the lyrics. Some translations are really poor (even I can see that), and I've never put the music and the words together satisfactorily; your chapter on the music is wonderful!
What a great job you've done with the whole site! I have been sending links to your site to my tango friends. Thanks and best regards. (My wife and I are off to BAs in two weeks; I feel that you have prepared me!)
Thank you! Learning the lyrics almost always means enjoying tango more—and ultimately dancing better. But as you said, some of the translations on the Internet are really bad. One site actually translated "Adios Arrabal as "Goodbye, Old slum." (The phrase, "Adios Arrabal porteño" then became, "Goodbye, old harbor slum.") Yikes. And the original lyrics in castellano are sometimes wrong also.
The problem with the Internet is that everyone copies, so mistakes get copied and pasted into other websites, and the errors spread. I know how hard it is to keep them out, because it seems like every time I re-read a few pages I find something. But we're taking our time, and trying to be as accurate as possible. And we really welcome corrections from any native speakers who may be reading.
Also, if you don’t mind, please let us know your city and country. It's not essential, but I like to put it so people won't think I'm making letters up and sending them to myself.
We much enjoy reading your Tango and Chaos web site. Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge!! We try as much as we can to keep the authentic style alive and your site is a great resource!
We would like to share some observations on recent fads that we think are affecting the woman's technique. One is the position of the arm. You describe the "arm wrap", but we've noticed a new fad. In the last year or so it has come in vogue for the woman to put her arm on the man's back as if she were leading. Look at almost any video on YouTube from the last year and you will see what I mean.
Secondly, there is the craze of stilettos, designer shoes with 4-inch heels. This leads to the woman no longer being grounded but instead being on tiptoe, leaning on the man and this makes for a rather "spindly" look.
Lastly, there is a tendency towards excessive embellishments, to the degree that the leader no longer leads and hardly moves. He seems to have become a support for the woman to wrap her legs around. Tango pole dancing, we call it ;-) Thanks again for sharing and keep up the good work! Warm regards,
You’re right; YouTube does seem to be full of “fad tango”. Fads are usually harmless, unless they bother other dancers or inhibit good technique. I think most people do lots of embellishing or use radical arm positions because they want to call attention to themselves, and show they got coolness—which is probably why so many of them are on YouTube. Over time, they'll probably either outgrow it, or quit tango and find something new.
I would like to thank you again for posting these videos. It's been a few years since you've posted some of them and I still go back to watch them to figure out what you were illustrating. I also watch them to see how people actually dance in the milongas. I am so amazed watching all these couples dancing in the music and they do it so elegantly. I have a few questions about the way the milongueros move around the floor.
In the first 20 seconds of the video on page 9 of Chapter 5, El Chino steps backwards against the line of dance without looking behind him to see if anyone was there. How did he know no one was around him? In the same chapter on page 7, I noticed that Gerard looks around as he's turning—but when he moves backwards, how does he know somebody hasn't moved into the space? Was Alej able to see who was behind him? Do the milongueros have this innate ability to sense this?
I remember reading on your website a few years ago that the milongueros would purposely turn to find out who was around them, so I have incorporated it into my dancing. I ask this because sometimes I see people dancing who I guess are "more skilled" in dancing and they don't seem to bump into people even though it seems they never look around them (I'm still trying to figure out if that's really the case).
A third of the way into the Miguel Balbi video on page 10, just as he passes the entrance to the house, notice how Miguel turns a few times and sees the other couple in front move away. Then Miguel and his partner walk backwards—but when other couple starts back towards them, I think his partner signaled him, and they suddenly change their trajectory of dancing. About 3 quarters of the way into the video almost the same thing happens again. Do most milongueras keep their eyes closed or opened? I'm pretty sure you spoke about this, but I'll ask again anyway.
Holy schnikeys! These questions just get harder and harder... but also better! I think navigation is the ultimate tango skill. You have to know the music cold; you need to have technique down so well that you can instantly change speed or direction without losing your partner or the music; and you need to develop a sense of the flow around you. It probably takes a thousand hours dancing in crowded milongas to get a real feel for it, so I'm not sure how much can be conveyed on the pages of a website—but I'm willing to give it a shot. Please give me a few weeks, and I’ll try to put together some pages and add them to Chapter 6.
My question is about the way that the chests connect. It seems to me that most of the milongueros in the videos have their partners slightly to their right as they face each other. It looks like the right side of his chest is closer to her left breast than the left part of is chest to her right breast, thus creating an impression of openness or "V" on the leader's left side. I guess that this is what is referred to as the open/close side of the embrace. What do you think? I'd love some information to help me decipher this part of the embrace. This seems like an easier way to dance instead of standing "chest to chest" in a flat line.
Also, who takes the lead in determining what the embrace is going to be? I have heard seemingly contradictory opinions, such as the follower determines the embrace, and others state that the leader should. Please let me know if I missed the part where you address this issue.
Thanks for a the great question. I haven’t discussed this yet, but now is a good time. The answer has some pictures, and it’s too long for the comments section, so I put it on page 33 of Chapter 6.
I've recently discovered Enrique Rodríguez and his otros ritmos. Where would you place that music (genre, era, dance form, tradition, etc.)? In any case just hearing it makes me very glad, but I'm not sure what kind of music it is. Sometimes it seems paso doble inspired. Have you written anything about it (I have not read all your texts)?
No, I haven’t written about it, and I should say again that I’m not a music expert—but I did ask Nestor Serra. He says that in the old days most big milongas had two orchestras—one regular orquesta tipica (tango orchestra), and a second "jazz" orchestra that played otros ritmos (other rhythms). The non-tango orchestra played all sorts of popular music, like fox trots, paso dobles, jazz, swing, rancheras, boleros, rumbas, etc. Nestor says the only regular tango orchestra he can remember that also played other rhythms in milongas was Enrique Rodriguez. Sometimes they played paso dobles, polkas, and fox trots, which are probably on your recording. (Alberto Castillo was another famous name that moved outside of tango—after he left Tanturi, he sang candombe.)
Today, most of the downtown milongas stick mostly to tango, but many of the neighborhood milongas, and the Saturday night Salidas del Sabado milongas play otros ritmos. Usually it’s rock, swing, salsa, and sometimes chacarera, which is folk music and dancing from Northern Argentina. (A few years ago Celia’s, and a few other clubs, only had tango licenses. They couldn’t play otros ritmos, because it requires a more restrictive nightclub license from the city.)
I just had to say… you are doing great work! You have very original approach, a bit of everything in it. Well chosen examples, down to earth explanations, right dose of humor, lots of analytical hours behind the things that just like in good milongueros dancing look simple and easy to understand, but are well prepared. Congrats in everything from the very bottom of my heart infected by tango, long, long time ago.
May I sometimes ask some questions about tango dancing, because I’m so new in it (2 months only) and for me it is very important to get it right from the very beginning. In these 2 months I already changed one tango school for another, but still I’m not quite satisfied with explanations and demonstrations.
Well, my urging question for now is: Shall woman wait for her partner’s next move on her flat foot, or on front side of her foot (her weight on other straightened foot)? At our last class our instructor said we are not ballet dancers and we must either step and wait on our flat foot and rocked my tango world and made me walk around as a big question mark. Big hugs from Belgrade, love you guys and just keep on gliding.
A woman's step in tango is difficult—but I like what you're new instructor said. On page 32 of Chapter 6, there's an example of Copes and his partner. She’s a good dancer, but maybe not a great tango dancer. The way her feet contact the floor looks sort of… normal. She steps onto the front of her foot in a soft, controlled way, like a trained professional dancer. But dancing tango isn’t really about walking like a stage dancer. Tango is from the arrabal, so you need to put some street into it.
If you look at the video of Esther Pugliese (on the same page), her walk should look different. Maybe a little more solid. Like many of the older ladies from the arrabal, she sets her foot firmly into the floor. Alej's style is more relaxed, and her walk is a bit lighter, but she also places her feet solidly. Instead of using a soft, tiptoeing, stage-dancer step, she keeps her feet close to ground, and places her foot quickly and firmly, like she’s walking on the rough surface of a crowded sidewalk.
I don’t really need to answer you’re question however, because in the last video on the page, there are a dozen women who answer it for me. They aren’t professional dancers, but they've all danced tango for a long time, and to me, it looks like heel-down is the default position. When they step back, they land on the front of the foot, but then they roll down onto the heel as soon as possible. All of their other steps tend to be down onto the heel as well, and unless they pivot, they keep the heel planted.
Many of the techniques used in tango are practical solutions to conditions in the milongas. Performers usually practice figures and choreography in studios with one partner. They polish the same steps and routines, and they have the opportunity to include all kinds of stylized stepping. Milongueras, however, dance to all kinds of music with dozens of different partners. They dance on different surfaces, share an axis with their partners, and they do an incredible amount of dancing. Unless you live in BsAs and go out dancing all the time, it’s hard to really appreciate how much dancing people do. They’re out almost every day, dancing for hours at a time, and many of them have been doing it for most of their lives. I’m not sure if there’s any other dance in the world where social dancers put in so much time and become so proficient. In fact, the average social dancer in BsAs probably puts in more hours than many professional dancers. The result is that over time, the best and most experienced dancers have developed a stable, efficient, energy conserving style. That means stepping into the floor, usually with the heel down. And because the best dancers have been doing it for so long, it's the technique everyone aspires to. It has become one of the traditions of tango.
As far as pausing, your partner should always leave you in a comfortable position. Normally, that means heel down and centered. Occasionally you may end up a little forward on the front your foot—which is okay, because if your partner is a good dancer, he has a reason for putting you forward. During a pause, you should wait with one leg floating free. I don’t think you should necessarily try to point the toe of your free foot, but if your ankle is relaxed, it will naturally point down a little toward the floor. At this point you’re waiting, listening to the music, feeling your partner’s body language, and maybe moving your free foot a little. It’s like flying an airplane—you’re focused and doing several things at once. But you're not thinking about the economy or changing the oil in the car... because you’re lost in tango, and having fun!
By the way, I like they way you write. "...rocked my tango world and made me walk around as a big question mark." is a great way to put it. And I think you're lucky to be in your second month of tango—one of the most exciting times!
I love the interview both of you do in Chapter 1. I have three questions for Alejandra:
1. What is your favorite music, and what is it about the music that you like so much? (It's obvious that you know the music very well. I believe it'll help me expand how I hear the music.)
2. You say, "The best dancers are the ones who can answer to the music with the body." And also, "The feet always move with the compás so the body can answer to the music." Can you clarify this? In the first sentence I thought you meant the whole body. In the second sentence you seem to be saying that the best dancers know how to dance to the compás with their feet and the music/melody with their body.
3. Is this just about navigation when you said: "You can tell that they are really paying attention, taking care, watching out for you." Don't you need this to have these qualities to have a good connection?
Yay! This is the first chance I've had to speak on the site since the interview more than five years ago!
1. Music: I really don’t have a favorite orchestra or type of music. Rick and I have a lot of favorites, but they keep changing all the time. We dance to everything except Pugliese, slow valses, and milongas (Rick's choices, not mine).
As far as other dancers, I used to like to dance to Rodriquez and Laurenz with Ricardo Vidort. I always looked for Miguel Balbi when tandas of Calo, Di Sarli, and Biaggi were played. I also like Biaggi with Tete. With Gerard Gellé it was normally Canaro, D’Arienzo and valses. With El Gallego, I like milongas. So it depends on the dancer—you look for them, and they look for you, depending on the orchestra, or even on the specific tangos that may come up. You might dance one kind of Biaggi tanda with one person, and wait for another Biaggi to dance with someone else. It sounds complicated, but when you’re out dancing every day, you get to know all the dancers, and the way different DJs play the tandas, so after awhile it happens without even thinking.
There are so many great tangos that you can never get tired of them, or even know all of them. I suppose my favorites are the ones Rick and I work on to translate. Even though I’ve heard them all my life, after we listen carefully to the words, and think about the meanings, it’s like they're new, and we’re dancing to them for the first time. (We've translated lots of them, and we plan to add them to Chapter 4 next year.)
2. Using the body and feet: I meant that everything the best dancers do—the way they move around the floor, hesitate, step, everything—comes from what they hear. Obviously, the feet support the body, and if you aren’t using your feet creatively in the compás, then the rest of it doesn’t work. Every movement should express something, and you shouldn't add anything meaningless. This is very hard to see, because most people are used to tango with lots of figures and adornments. This decorated, academic tango looks good to teachers, students, and audiences—but to me, it's not real tango. It's artificial. You can’t learn steps and adornments, and then go to a milonga and try to fit them to the music. Figures are for the stage, but never, ever for a milonga. Chapter 5 shows the kind of dancing that comes only from the music. In Chapter 6, Rick shows some of the ways the milongueros move to express a specific sound or feeling in the music.
3. Navigation: Using good technique, connecting with your partner, and listening to the music are the basis of dancing tango—but the most difficult thing is navigation. Most people think they’re good at it, but they usually aren’t. You need to master technique, connection, and musical expression, before you can begin to understand navigation. It’s the last thing to learn, and it takes the longest. Good navigation means protecting both your partner, and everyone else on the floor—but it doesn’t just mean physically protecting. You need to dance so that you don't bother other people in any way. You need to protect everyone else's opportunity to express the music and enjoy the themselves.
On page 29 of Chapter 6, you wrote, that it is pretty easy to change the length of a step. While this is true for men, I think it is very difficult for the women, because it requires a special technique to do it. The woman has to feel when to actually step on her foot. Most beginner women (and also a lot of more experienced ones) don't know how to do this. They put weight on the foot far too early. Stepping backwards is much more difficult than forward—nobody does it in real life. It is actually quite difficult for the woman to adjust the length of her step to the lead.
I'm not a follower, but I do know it's a difficult job. Here’s an experiment: The man begins by walking along in the compás, taking short steps. Say the steps are one foot in length, and he takes one step per second. Then, he begins to increase the length of each step by 6 inches, and he does it for 5 steps. Think about what happens. He stays in the compás, so the time interval (one step per second) stays exactly the same—but as the length of the step increases, he begins to go faster. In fact, he goes more than three times faster (from 1 foot per second, to 3.5 feet per second). So in tango, you don't move faster by stepping more often—you move faster by taking longer steps.
Now imagine he does this exercise with a partner. If his technique is good, she will feel him accelerate against her chest. If she maintains good forward posture, and fully extends her leg behind her as he begins to tip forward and stride out more, his chest will carry her a bit farther with each step. By maintaining her connection, she accelerates along with the man. At this point, she's doing her job as a follower… but she has an even higher obligation! No matter what her partner does, she must obey the first law of tango: She must always step in the compás. If she does that, then she can't step early, and she doesn’t even need to "feel" his step. All she needs to know is that he is moving forward, and that he will step on the compás. And by using good technique, and stepping on the compás as well, she will match his step perfectly.
Following is a biomechanical activity, but just as in navigation (which we'll discuss soon in Chapter 6), there's an art to it. Alej dances with her weight slightly forward, and she stays so balanced and relaxed that she's able to feel the slightest movement. She's also very sensitive to the music, and she has an intuitive way of picking up on what her partner is hearing. I'm not a musician, but when I watch her with someone she hasn't danced with for a long time, it seems like two musicians warming up. They work around each other for a bit, and then begin to catch a rhythm and work together.
Alej isn’t interested in adding decorations to her dancing, but once she picks up on what her partner is doing, she participates in a subtle way. For example, if she senses that I want to accelerate at a certain part of the music, she anticipates it, and helps me along. She always maintains a light pressure on my chest, but when she knows there's room, and feels it's time to go, she puts a little more energy into her back-step. The chest pressure drops a little, and it gives me the sensation of stepping on the accelerator of a fast car. It feels like we surge forward. It's not easy to see, but there’s an example of it in the video on page 27 of Chapter 5, where she anticipates a key part of the music, and reaches back to help Pocho through a short corridita. It happens at exactly the right place in the tango, and she and Pocho are the only ones on the floor who do it.
Response by Helga and Christian — November 13, 2008
1. I think you gave a very good explanation. As part of our class, we walk to the music in front of a mirror, forward and backward, without partner. We do this as a balance exercise, because walking backward is pretty difficult. Many students have real balance problems and it takes some practice until they are able to go backward on a straight line. In this exercise we observe many women and men stepping before the compás, because they are lacking the right technique (like you described) while walking backward.
2. Many men (and women) very often are not walking to the compás. Would Alej slow down (or speed up) such a man during the dance? I sometimes dance with women, who "draw" me into a step before the compás. Because it is a lot of work to slow down such women, I tend to follow them stepping too fast and stop dancing after 2 or 3 tangos.
1. Nice discussion! It’s great that you’re working on such important things in your classes. It's too bad more teachers don't do it.
2. Sometimes new people who dance with Alej are a little excited or nervous, so they push the compás, and step slightly early. But she never steps out of the compás, and she's usually able to slow the other person with her body. She tries to get them to relax into the music. If she knows them, and they are learning, at the end of the tango she might say, "We need to look for the compás." Then she helps during the next dance.
[While Alej's partners sometimes move too fast because they're excited, my dancing seems to have the opposite effect. A couple of times I’ve danced with women who step slightly late—and it drives me nuts! It feels as though we’re wading through water, or like there’s a slight echo. The beat goes "tick", and then I feel a small bump as their foot touches the floor right after: tick(bump)…tick(bump)… tick(bump). It’s very distracting, and I find myself constantly pushing and straining to get them to catch up. I'm a helpful person, so as we dance, I gently say, “Look, if I rent a horse, I don’t want some worn out old nag that just plods along! I want a fast, lively horse that’s ready to go. Capish?” It seems to help, but I can't be sure, because we don't usually dance anymore.]
Your site is amazing—it's as if I wrote it. Please keep up the great job! I'm a liberal, but when it comes to tango, I'm as conservative as you can get. The point is, though, that there are very few of us. My question is—what do you think of the future of tango?I'd love for my kids and grandkids to have the same feelings I do when I go to BA, even when the old milongueros are gone. It is nice to think that "el tango te espera," but it will need some help. So, do you think there are young teachers-performers who will carry our tango into future? If so, could you name them, please? What do you think of Javier & Geraldine? For example, what do you think of this clip—is this what we call social tango, or is it stage?
Javier and Geraldine seem to be very popular. This is the third email I’ve received about them in the past month. They're very good performers who understand social tango, and they use it as a basis for their dancing. I think that other than Miguel Zotto, they’re about as close as a performer can get to representing the tango of the milongas on stage. You could take their technique, tone it down, and remove the bigger leg swings and boleos, and I think it would be fine in a milonga.
As for the future of tango… I’m flattered that someone even thinks I can answer such a difficult question. It's straightforward enough, but as I began to think about it, all the puzzles I'd encountered in tango kept popping up, and it took a while to put it all together. I realize what I'm about to write probably isn't a good answer to your question, but it's the best I can do:
Performing and teaching have never had a big role in tango. Tango dancing grew and evolved in response to the music in the milongas, and it exists independently of the people who teach and entertain. Other than providing amusement for audiences, and bringing a little publicity, they've never had any great effect on tango, and there’s no reason to think they will in the future. Performers and teachers may skim off a few of the physical movements, and spread them around a little, but the true nature of tango exists separately, and they don't influence it.
The next part of the question, about the future of tango, is more difficult. I used to worry about it, and there was a time when I filmed frantically. I was trying to save what I could. But lately, I’ve run out of gas. Part of it is that there isn’t much left to film… but there’s another reason. I’ve come to understand that you can’t “save” tango. You can only save something that's at risk for change—but tango can't change. The Golden Age tangos exist today in digital recordings that contain exactly the same information that existed in 1960. The music is frozen in time, and it can neither grow, nor deteriorate, like it did when it was only on vinyl records and in the minds of musicians sixty years ago. It's in the form of electrons and digital code that will always be around for anyone who wants it—today, or tomorrow, or in 500 years. So in that sense, there's no uncertainty in its future. There's no need to speculate or worry.
Ahh… but what about the dancing? Well, the dancing exists digitally also. Not all of it, but a good, representative sample. Like the music, it’s not all there, but there’s enough to satisfy me, and there should be enough for anyone with the energy to look.
Now it gets more difficult. Suppose for a moment that there was no record at all of the dancing. Suppose all of the milongueros were gone, and all the video evidence of their dancing was somehow wiped out. If that happened, it still wouldn’t matter. We wouldn't need to worry, because the Golden Age music is frozen, and I believe that the seeds of the dancing are frozen within the music. Any group of people who begin to dance to the music will eventually encounter those seeds, and end up dancing in the same way the milongueros are dancing today! Not exactly the same, but their dancing will converge into something so close that it will be just as good. It may take a few generations, but if people look for it, real tango will emerge. The notes and sounds and words within the confines of a milonga will eventually elicit more or less the same movements that you see in the videos of Ismael, and Miguelito, and Roberto Noli, and the rest. So even if the all the video of the milongueros somehow vanished, the dancing would still be there, waiting in the music.
Of course you can quibble about what I just said. You could argue that the dancing in the milongas doesn't inevitably flow from the music. You could argue that the techniques people use when they come together to dance tango are merely an expression of the society in which they live; that the dancing doesn't really exist in the music at all. Let's say for the sake of argument that the way the milongueros dance is a unique event—a product of a specific time in their shared history and environment, and that once it's gone, it's gone forever. Let's assume that it can't be recovered from the music. What then? This is the argument I would have made a couple of years ago. It formed the basis of all the effort I put into filming. If there's any risk that some of it could disappear forever, doesn't that mean we need to record every last drop if we can? And maybe even promote it to keep it alive? The answer is no.
The answer is no, because as far as tango is concerned, the dancing itself is irrelevant. This is something the Argentines figured out a long time ago. Both Borges and Troilo talked about it, and it was part of their work—but you don’t have to be Troilo or Borges to understand it. The young soccer player I mentioned earlier in this section understood it perfectly when he said, “Tango isn’t really a dance.” The great majority of Argentines who know tango intimately, and the rest who know it only casually, realize that you find tango by listening. Only a small minority has any interest in dancing to the music. Most listen to tango on the radio, or CDs, and their connection is just as strong as it is for those who dance. So even without the dancing, tango is still there. It’s all there, complete, and preserved in the music. And it's not going anywhere. Alej and I have beautiful children and grandchildren in BsAs, and I'm not worried at all. They have no interest in tango right now, but if they ever want it, it's easy to find.
As far as your question about young people in tango who connect to the music and the traditions, there are lots of them. I can't give you a list of names, and I'm not sure which ones teach or perform, but we see them out all the time. Like us, they're currently being buried under an influx of new dancers and tourists bringing academic tango into the milongas, but that's no big deal. We move around and we find places to dance. And just as Miguel Zotto said, sooner or later most of them will move on, but tango will still be there. Tango waits.
Note: Last week I received a comment that was so long, I decided to post it on a separate page. It’s filled with well thought out opinions that are worth reading. (Read the full comment here.)
While I agree with most of what the author has to say, there are a few things I’d like to respond to, so I've posted several excerpts here with my responses. This is the first one:
"I think it's neither fair nor objective right to put Osvaldo Zotto in one video with the other couples in chapt. 6. I still hope you can see what a big difference there is between them. If not I do not know if you should continue this site. This sounds hard but for me it is a real insult to O. Zotto. Since he is not in a milonga but performing I can see nothing wrong in the dancing. Actually he is doing all the things you promote on your technique chapter (Although his leg is slightly bent sometimes as you said to have some more energy). And I am not sure if you could do one of these movements equally. I am not promoting something like he dances in a milonga for social dancing but to use it as a bad example is not right."
You’re right when you say that it’s not very nice to single people out and use them as negative examples. Almost all of the videos on the web site demonstrate good things, but there are a few that show some famous people doing things that are not so good. I posted the negative videos because I believe that many instructors are teaching the wrong things, and I wanted to provide a clear example to support that argument.
The milongas in the Buenos Aires neighborhoods are the core of tango. Most of the great music that exists today was written and played specifically for the people who dance in them, and today’s tango is the direct result of the music and movement that has evolved in them over the last 100 years. Tango did not come from dance academies, and it didn’t come from the stage. So when important Argentine dancers travel around the world teaching stage tango, and giving thousands of students the impression that the purpose of tango is to perform figures and embellishments designed to entertain audiences, I believe they are damaging tango.
The short sequences in the video clip you refer to weren’t actually performances. They were part of a videotape that was given to students at the end of one of the biggest tango workshops in the U.S. It was made so that each instructor could boil down the things they taught into a final demo for the students to keep and study—and it clearly shows the message that these high level Argentine tango dancers wanted to send: Tango is a show—a sequence of eye-catching steps and figures, with some music playing in the background.
As far as Osvaldo Zotto, I didn’t mean to criticize the technical part of his dancing at all. In fact, I used the words “beautiful” and “talented” to describe the way he and Lorena moved. The point was to show that you can move with excellent technique, but still dance in a way that’s not connected to the music. I didn't enjoy picking them, but that short piece of video was the clearest example I could find of the kind of “step” or “pattern” based academic tango that is taught in classes.
The way of dancing you prefer is very conservative and in a way I like it too… but for young people who did not have the opportunities to spend years with the music it is very hard to figure out what is so special about the tango you promote. Do you really think somebody who is in an early stage of Tango will continue reading your article? I think no.
If you really want to change something and to reach the people who are doing something which you would not consider as any part of Tango, the first step would be to prove that you understand the situation they are in. Sometimes I have the impression that since you are so much into Tango you are probably not always aware about your (first of all mental) stage you have been in.
The comment above was pasted together from different parts of Frank Seifarth's entire message, but I think it accurately expresses what he wants to say—and I don't necessarily disagree with it. Alej and I have been traveling this past week, so I've had a little time to think about it, and I'll try to respond as frankly as I can:
I know how to promote things, but the truth is that I don’t have a keen interest in trying to reach every person who happens to wander into the website. And even if I wanted to, it wouldn't work. Troilo said, "El tango te espera." He meant there may come a time when you'll want to connect to tango—or there may not—but either way, tango isn't going to come to you. It just waits.
Five or six years ago I went to milongas and did very exhausting stuff for up to six hours. Since I did sports all my life, it felt not unnatural to me. Since then it has changed a lot. I came a lot closer to the style you probably would describe as effective. But for me it began to change when I was listening to the music more carefully, and not because I was too exhausted.
I used to do the same thing. But I eventually grew out of it, just like you did.
Thanks for all the distilled wisdom on your website; it will take me years to absorb and try to implement. I hope you won't mind if I ask a very basic question. To also step on just one weak tango beat, I do two quick steps (one from the strong beat to the weak beat, one from the weak beat to the strong beat) and then back to stepping only on strong beats. Hence I do 2,4,6 ... quick steps. However, you explain that such runs are 3,5 etc. So I must be missing something but I just don't know what and I find it difficult to sort this out by watching others.I also have a general observation—that many people walk quite badly (just down the street, not tango walking) and this seems to compromise their tango potential even before they start no matter how keen they are. By the way, I'm from UK. I'd prefer to be anonymous but would really value your insight into the above query. Best wishes
In music, and also maybe in ballroom dancing, they have a standard method for counting cadence. I don’t have any training in either one, so in tango I simply count the dos por cuatro of the compás as a strong beat followed by a weak beat. To do it in a simple tango walk, you might say “strong” each time your foot strikes the floor, and “weak” when your ankles pass. You could also use “tick-tock” instead of “strong-weak”.
If, however, you decide to step on the “weak” beat that comes in between, you will have to step faster (twice as fast) to hit it. Here’s how your walk would sound if each time your foot strikes the floor, you call out the name of the beat that you're stepping on:
Now, let’s substitute numbers:
Here’s a 5-step corrida, that hits two weak beats in a row. The result is to step on 5 consecutive beats:
I don't think there’s a right and wrong way to count the cadence in tango. This is just what I use to understand the corridas that I see in the milongas. Some of the best dancers combine corridas of different lengths—and some are very long. I've seen them go all the way up to 19, so it can get complicated. Demos of stepping on the weak beats begin on page 16 of Chapter 6, and there are some examples of counting the compás of milongueros on page 20.
As far as people who walk badly on the street, I know all about it because I'm one of them. But I've practiced and worked on it so much that I've been able to overcome it when I dance. Later in Chapter 6 we'll add some of the walking and balance drills that have helped me.
I would disagree with one part of your translation of Manoblanca in Chapter 4:
[The response was so long that I moved it to the end of the Manoblanca page.]
Reading your words of love on tango and the milongueros makes me want to return to Buenos Aires immediately, where I only just left. How quickly does one forget the noises, the bad air, the stress, the soaring inflation, the leaden bureaucracy, the old and new troubles between the government and the campo from that mad city. Now I'm suffering so much here in China, so far away so alien to tango...
You are not only talking wisely on tango but life in general, like what Borges says, “El infinito tango me lleva hacia todo.” Your section on Volver has provoked so many emotions and memories in me, as I've just returned to live in China after spending almost 20 years living in Europe, the Middle East and Argentina where so many things happened, good and bad. Now, here I am, back in China—same person but different. “Pero, es un soplo la vida, que 20 años no es nada...” Nothing is more fitting to my life at this stage than this tango!
Also appreciate the page on perfection in Chapter 4 (or rather on less so), What wise words! That's what makes tango real. I envisage those maestros viejitos, like Troilo with his double chins up, eyes closed, lamenting on his bandoneon. Far from fresh-faced and wide-eyed—maybe scarred somewhere and wounded at heart, but wise and interesting and has stories to tell.
And the VIDEOS!!! You're making some amazing archives of tango and milongueros in Buenos Aires! What wonderful work you've been laboring so hard! Congratulations! Among zillions of sites of self-promotions and sales, TangoandChaos is an act of love and nobility. Bravisimo!
One reason Alej and I stopped dancing outside of BsAs is because we felt that most people didn’t want to take the time to understand tango. Too many people were re-inventing it for their own purposes, and we eventually found that it was just no longer fun to be involved. But the comments we’ve received since we added this section are amazing! There are emails from all over the world, and even though English isn’t always the writer's first language (or maybe even second or third), the passion for tango shines through.
I used to think there was something in the air or the water of Buenos Aires that gave people the unique ability to understand tango—but now I’m not so sure. Even in BsAs, it’s a rare thing to feel tango the way the milongueros and milongueras do, but now I’m beginning to think that there are milongueros and milongueras all over the world. They may not have the opportunities we have in BsAs, but the passion, the humility, and the hunger for tango is there. Thanks for your beautiful email.
I saw a posting on the Tango-A list that mentions “Milonga Lisa” and “Vals Criollo”. I sort of gathered in passing from Christopher and Caroline that milonga lisa is slower: as in taking 2 beats for every step in milonga. As for vals criollo, I have no idea. Can you enlighten me?
Other than the literal translation—a simple, unadorned milonga without traspie, or a vals that originates in the countryside and is danced or played by the native criollos—I don't know. Maybe you could ask the couple that posted the message, and let me know if you find an answer. We’ll also ask around in the milongas to see what we can find out. I'm sure some of the milongueros, or DJs like Dany, Natu, Carlos Rey, or Orlando will know. (Anyone reading this is also welcome to respond).
Response by Christopher Everett — July 30, 2008
Milonga Lisa is milonga sin traspie, with very simple sequences of forward, back and side steps. Vals Criollo is a subcategory of vals. I've also seen Vals Peruviano and Vals Boston in discographies, for example. There's a species of Argentine folk music that is also 3/4 time like vals, but it's clearly music for people wearing muddy clodhoppers (but great for training newbies to hear the 1-2-3-1-2-3 of vals rhythm). I'm not clear on the specific distinctions, but I know that it has to do with phrasing and rhythmic structure. Hope this helps.
Update — August 20, 2008
What I’ve learned is that Viennese waltz came to South America in the early 1800s, and was combined with local dancing in different countries. In Argentina this combination was called vals criollo. (Originally, criollo was the word used to describe a Spaniard born in Argentina. Today, the word is generally used for something genuine from the countryside or, with cultural roots in the northern provinces. For instance, gauchos, and certain types of horses are often described as criollo.)
Eventually, vals criollo was absorbed into tango and became tango vals, or vals cruzado (which means waltz danced contra paso, in the way of tango.) The 3/4 time signature of waltz was kept, but local instruments replaced the symphony orchestras of Europe. In tango, this eventually meant piano, strings, and bandoneons. The milongueros and DJs all say they there is a difference between vals and vals criollo. They usually end up identifying most of the popular valses as being valses criollos, but so far, no one has been able to give me a clear description of the difference.
Update — January 21, 2009
After a lot of questions and discussions, I've decided that there's is no objective way to differentiate either vals criollo or tango criollo from the regular varieties. Everyone has their own list, but no one is able to give me a coherent definition. They seem to apply the term criollo to valses and tangos from the early days that were probably played and danced to in pulperias on the edge of town, and thus have some of the flavor of the criollo culture of the provinces.
I think a good analogy might be when country music in the U.S. gets mixed into other things. Most people have an idea what country music sounds like, and when it's fused into rock or blues or popular music, we can usually hear it. We might say a song is country-rock, or country-blues because we hear something in the guitars, or the accent of the singer that adds a little country flavor. But someone from another country might have trouble hearing it. I think that's what's happening with tango criollo and vals criollo. The milongueros are hearing some accent of the countryside in the music (maybe a hint of Argentine folklore) that I can't hear.
How "Lagrimas and Sonrisas" got Biaggi fired:
D'Arienzo's Lagrimas y Sonrisas is one example of a vals that everyone includes on the criollo list. We posted it on page 6 of Chapter 4 as an example of changes in cadence—but it's not the best version. The best version of all time was played one night 70 years ago. Like most of the best things in tango, it can now only exist in our imaginations—and it caused the breakup of one of the greatest collaborations in the history of tango. Here's the story:
One evening in 1938 D'Arienzo was playing Lagrimas y Sonrisas on stage, with Biaggi on the piano. The great pianist caught a bit of inspiration and went off on his own, flying on the piano. At the finish of the piece, the audience stood up, and refused to stop cheering until Biaggi turned on his seat to give a bow of acknowledgement—at which point D'Arienzo walked across the stage, leaned over, and whispered to Biaggi, "I'm the star of this orchestra. You're fired."
Your website keeps getting better and better and I learn from it. I have a few questions about dancing tango. Ahh, where to begin…
I believe, you wrote that dancing tango is dancing the lyrics. Since I'm not from Argentina and I know next to nothing of Spanish, learning the lyrics is going to be a very long process. I figured if I first learn to hear the music, compás and melody, and dance that, it would be far more helpful. For over a year now I've been making my own CDs of tango music that I like and I listen when I drive. Now when I dance I can, for the most part, step on the compás. I also know there is more going on in the music than I can discern. Whether it's the melody, the weak and strong beats etc. I know it's just a function of where I am in the learning process.
I've also read on the Internet where people say you can't dance the same way to different orchestras. Well, that's fine and dandy except no one actually explains what that means. I understand it conceptually what they're saying, but that isn't good enough. I'm not a musician nor am I a professional dancer. Could you explain how each of the orchestras played their music? How would you dance to Biaggi differently to Troilo? I want to expand how I'm listening to the music, which will expand how I can dance to the music.
My other question is that I eventually I want to come down to Argentina and learn to dance there. Do you know of anyone in Argentina that teaches these elements you listed on page 19 of Chapter 6? I am not interested in steps or patterns. I am willing to learn the basics.
More difficult questions... but thanks for writing! I'll do my best:
Learning lyrics: Every time I learn the lyrics of a new tango, the enjoyment I get from it increases tremendously. The music seems to come alive, and then when I hear it in a milonga, I can’t wait to get up and dance. It’s like getting up to greet an old friend. You’re probably right when you say that learning compás, posture, and step, should come first. But when you feel ready, try picking a tango you like in Chapter 4, and learn the words. See what happens. If you don’t like it, don't do it any more—you can still dance well without knowing the lyrics. But if you like it, then try another one. Don’t rush. Learn at your own pace. If you get interested in a tango, you may naturally want to find out more about it. Just getting to know a new tango every few months adds up, and over time, I think you'll notice that your dancing will begin to change. The more you listen, the more you'll hear, and the more confidence you’ll have on the dance floor. Your dancing will begin to flow naturally from your deeper connection to the music. This is a process that goes on for a lifetime, and it’s a big part of the fun of tango.
Compás: Most of the dance tangos have a clear compás (most of the time). Tap along in your car as you listen. First the strong beats, then both strong and weak beats. Then, practice tapping to only the weak beats. If you have trouble finding the compás, there's usually someone around who knows music or who dances a lot who can help.
Dancing to different orchestras: I’m not sure you can say you should dance in some specific way to each orchestra. The great orchestras played different tangos in different ways. The most obvious difference, even for a beginner, is the cadence of the music. A faster cadence means you have to take faster steps to stay in the compás. After that, it pretty much depends on every dancers artistic interpretation. If you look at the different milongueros dancing in Chapters 5 and 6, you'll see a wide range of ways to interpret different types of music. As we get further into Chapter 6, we’ll begin to look at this in more detail, and this may help to answer your question. We’re currently on page 20, but we’ll soon post a page that discusses a couple of stepping techniques that can be used for different types of music.
Recommending teachers: We're often asked to do this, but I’m sorry to say that we can’t. I mean it—I really am sorry. If I could say, “Go spend a month with XX, and you’ll be a better dancer”, I’d do it in a second. But the problem is that Alej and I don’t take classes, so if we started making recommendations without taking a million classes and acquiring a first hand knowledge about lots of teachers, it wouldn’t be accurate or fair. Here’s a suggestion: On this site you have some examples of the best social tango dancers in the world. Look at them very carefully, and think about our discussions of the techniques they're using. If you like the dancing, and the discussions make sense to you, then do your own research. Look around and talk to some teachers and students. Tell them what your goals are, and take some classes. Look for someone who knows what they’re doing, and can help you move forward in the way you want to go. But remember, other than mastering a few difficult but basic techniques, the road through tango is very personal. It belongs to you, and no one can tell you how to dance.
Response by Joe:
Thank you so much for your reply. I realize that learning to dance Tango is a personal experience. It's also something that you can't buy off the shelf at your local supermarket. So, I'm enjoying the journey and I don't take myself to seriously. What I want is to dance "elegantly". Now that's a big theme that has many things connected to it.
Thanks for your amazing work, specially the collection of milongueros videos and the technique Chapter 6 "Back to School". I started taking tango classes in the USA, eight years ago. I had danced salsa and other Latin rhythms before, where listening to the music and the beat is key. So I was very surprised when in tango classes, all the emphasis was on the figures and sequences. I only had one short class from a teacher who explained the tango rhythm in terms of strong and weak beats, and gave us indications on how to walk and pause.
I took several classes with different touring teachers from Argentina, and it was always the same: a bunch of figures, sequences, more figures. At that point I strongly started to feel that it had to be much more to tango than figures and sequences. There are so many orchestras, so many excellent singers, so many rhythm and melody subtle variations in tango, that it didn’t make sense to interpret them with pre-established patterns. I began to search the Internet, but all I could find were a few references to Tete, Pepito Avellaneda, and Miguel Balmaceda. I ordered their videos, and looked for the parts where they improvised, but there were still no videos available of people dancing in a real milonga in Buenos Aires.
Then a couple of years ago I found your page, and together with the now available online videos, I began trying to figure out what it is about these milongueros, that makes me watch their videos again and again. When I watch a video of stage tango, I usually enjoy seeing it one time, but then it becomes boring to watch it again. Somehow I can watch your selection of milongueros videos again and again, and I find them always enjoyable. My theory is that because of the interpretation of the music they do, it is like listening to your favorite song by your favorite singer, without getting tired of it.
Then last week I found your newer section "Back to School", written with such clarity and precision as only an engineer can do it (are you an engineer?). This section is a true treasure for those of us who have not gone to Buenos Aires milongas, but still want to absorb some of the technique that allows such beautiful interpretations of tango. Thanks a lot for your excellent work. I am sure there are many people around the world that truly appreciate it. I wanted to send you a link with one video I recently found, and that has become one of my favorites. It is just amazing how their dancing matches perfectly the music and the mood of the song:
Thank you so much for your very kind and interesting email. And thanks for the link to the video of Ruben. He’s a friend of ours, and one of his best friends is Ismael, the first milonguero shown in Chapter 5. We were very happy for him when he was recently able to get a visa so he could travel to the U.S. and teach. We have tons of video of him—although I haven’t had a chance to put any of it on the site yet. I’ll probably put some in Chapter 5 when we get time, but the YouTube video is a fine example of his dancing, so we might as well let someone else pay for the bandwidth, and encourage people who want to see him to follow the link you provided. ¡Que musica!
By the way, I’m just finishing a page in Chapter 6 that has a great video of Ricardo Vidort. It’s one of the first videos I ever took in BsAs of him dancing with Alej in an old house in San Cristobal. The quality is terrible, but for me it’s beautiful. It’s from the time I first met both of them, and Ricardo is dancing with tremendous power and enthusiasm to Vargas’ Adios Arrabal. I just discovered it, and I think it’s his best. Even though the video quality is terrible, it’s a clinic on how to dance tango.
I wish to complement you on your website—in particular, the section on walking. To me this is the most important element of tango and something that gets too little attention from many instructors. Of course, figures can be fun and nice to know, but without proper technique in the caminada progress is definitely hindered. I think your exercises provide a good example, and with maybe 3-5 years of diligent practice motivated students should begin to get it.
Also, you held up Finito as someone to appreciate. If I am correct, he is considered an exponent of what has come to be called Villa Urquiza style, which is somewhat different than what is labeled Milonguero. Can you comment as to the distinction? I am drawn to the Villa Urquiza style with milonguero sensibility. Some dancers I like are Jorge Dispari, Javier Rodrigues, Andres Laza Moreno—do you have opinions on them? My partner and I will be in BsAs in August and are considering lessons with Jorge and Turca.
Wow. These questions are hard! Now I realize why I never put a comments section on the site for the first five years. I’m getting called out on all sorts of things—but I’ll try to do my best on this one.
First, I really like what you say about it taking 3 to 5 years of diligence to begin to understand walking. Very smart. (I would emphasize the “begin” to understand part.)
Second, as far as the people you mentioned, I’m familiar with the first two, and I checked out the last one (Moreno) on YouTube. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that they’re all excellent dancers, and if you want to use them as role models, or as teachers, you couldn’t do any better—with this caveat: They all have both feet planted pretty firmly in the academia-performing world, with only a toe stuck into social tango. The type of tango you learn is your choice, but if you want to be a good social dancer, I’d be careful about learning some of the more complex and showy parts of their dancing. My advice would be to use them to learn good basic technique (which they definitely have), and then try to dance a lot in milongas. I know this isn’t always possible outside of BsAs, but if you can find a way to get several thousand tangos among accomplished social dancers, the “steps” will come. I don’t know exactly how or why, but you’ll begin to absorb things from the other dancers, and the music will begin to pull the steps out of you. I think it’s the best way.
If you don’t have that opportunity, then I think you should watch videos of the best dancers over and over. Don’t necessarily copy steps, but try to absorb their posture, cadences, and movement. Also, try not to watch bad dancers. There are lots of them in the milongas, and there seem to be more and more on video and on the Internet lately. Look the other way.
Now comes the part of your question I don’t really want to answer. Tango styles. There’s really too much to say here, but I’ll try to be concise: I speak very strongly against the existence of identifiable styles in social tango, but the truth is that no one can really say for sure whether they exist or not. Here’s what I’m sure of: 1. Alej and I have danced everywhere in BsAs, and filmed everywhere, and we can’t really identify any styles. 2. Almost everyone who dances all the time in the milongas will tell you they don’t exist (and that includes most of the best milongueros—including several from Villa Urquiza.) 3. The people who do believe in giving names to separate and distinct styles of tango are almost always from the academic-performing world, rather than the milongas.
That’s about it. For me, it’s not really important whether tango “styles” exist or not. This group of very good dancers that you mention do have a lot of similarities in their dancing—which makes sense, because they practice and perform together. I’ve filmed and studied Javier before. He and the others all seem to dance with great posture, and they step onto their heels, and then quickly flick their feet down onto the floor. It looks nice, and if they choose to call it the “Villa Urquiza style”, they may be correct. In the end, however, I think the important thing is to have good technique, dance a lot in the milongas, and don’t bother your neighbors. If you really feel and enjoy the music, sooner or later, your own style will come. What you call it is irrelevant.
Finally, as far as Fino, I think he was the best. Period. He set the standard for modern tango dancing. If you define the Urquiza style as the way the people you mentioned dance, then I would say no. His basic technique has a bit more forward energy, and the way his foot contacts the floor is different. Not a criticism of them, but for me, his technique was different.
Response by Maurice:
Regarding styles I came across an interview with Andrea Misse and she said they danced salon style, and Villa Urquiza is just a famous place where there are many good salon style dancers. Javier stated "there are only two types of tango, one is good, and one is bad. To dance good tango is not to show off the steps and technique, but rather the essence of tango is how you feel and care for the woman, how you let her dance beautifully. You want the lady to sleep and dream with the music in your arms; not tear her hair out trying to guess and follow your next move."
To me this seems good advice and maybe Andrea answers the question of Villa Urquiza. I came across the section on your site where you basically divide tango into two classes—social and stage. This makes sense to me. Back to the walk—I have heard from many teachers that you flex into the supporting leg before moving. Now, the dancers I like seem to move exactly as you describe, although they may step with the heel first.
I can't think of any reason to bend your weight bearing leg at floor contact, but there may be times when you bend your supporting leg to help push off into an extra long step. And you might also use it occasionally for emphasis, to add more up and down movement—but I don't think it's something you should do all the time. We'll cover it more thoroughly soon, and give some examples in Chapter 6.
I had been waiting for the video in Chapter 6 that contrasts the two styles of stage and social tango, and the one you chose was an excellent idea. Absolutely brilliant! Maybe it wasn't the organizer's intent, but I think Gustavo makes a complete fool of himself here (video on page 4, Chapter 6). This video is one of the best demonstrations of how inappropriate it is to express the music with movements totally alien to the cultural context in which tango developed. I am often astonished at how insensitive people are to the 'amputation' of artistic expressions, and it's almost fascinating to which extent tango is subject to this kind of treatment.
Well, you probably got enough feedback already. Anyway, I’ll repeat it here: Great work, Rick and Alejandra! Everything in chapter 6 makes sense and nicely fits into the principle “form follows function”.
Thank you so much for the very nice email. I’m happy the “form follows function” way of looking at tango comes across clearly. It always gives me a nice shot of motivation to get a message like yours.
As far as Gustavo Naveira, he seems like a nice guy. After the end of the dancing in this video, he stuck around and helped everyone take pictures, and he was very friendly—but I don't like what he teaches, or the way he represents tango. We look more closely at his dancing in "Kung Fu Tanda" (Chapter 6).
By the way, you're very kind to use the word "brilliant"—but there's really nothing brilliant by Alej or I here. After looking at this video again however, I realize it does contain something truly brilliant. Check out the double giro by Miguelito. He does it after Naveira moves out of the way. He goes around twice, and then walks out backwards, toward the wall. That is brilliant. No exaggeration.
Thank you both for spending your time and energy to disseminate your knowledge and inner understanding of tango. I am slowly digesting your technique pages, especially the walking. They are excellent. I would love to see similar videos of Alej walking, and of you both together.
Your site is getting quite large now, and has some wonderful sections, however, sometimes, I get lost in it and cannot find what I am looking for. Is it possible to add a search facility or a navigation system as a constant on every page? Thank you again.
Thank you for your kind comments—and especially for the Borges quote. I’m glad you’re getting something from the walking pages. Alej and I will try to demonstrate some of the things we use in the milongas together a little later in Chapter 6 when we have more time.
You’re right about the need for better site navigation. The site is getting big. Huge may be a better word. For now, the way I find things is to go to Google and put in “tangoandchaos” along with the word I’m looking for. It works pretty well—although it seems strange to go to Google to look for things in my own work. I’ll see if I can find a search function to put on the site.
As far as your Borges quote, I talked to Alej a little about it (she actually knew Borges), and I had a couple of ideas about it... but then I thought some more, and I realized they weren’t very good ideas. In fact, I realized that not only can’t I explain or add to it, I don't think I can even translate it. But it does remind me of something that happened a couple of years ago:
I was at a party with a group of young Argentines. They were soccer players and professionals who had nothing to do with tango, and one of them said to me, “So you dance tango? I thought about trying it... but dancing never interested me very much.” Before I could respond, one of the others said, “Well, tango isn’t a dance…” And two or three others jumped in instantly and said, “Yes, tango isn’t a dance.” After a moment, the one who spoke to me nodded, and said, “Well… of course you’re right.” Although Borges and those young people were very far apart, they were Argentine, and they felt the same thing.
The walking pages are fantastic. The tip you give about always keeping the supporting leg straight is phenomenal—seems like it should be a no-brainer, but no one else in tango has ever told me that. A couple of questions: In some of the stills and videos on the site, it seems like some milongueros actually make contact with their heel when walking forward, rolling from the heel balance point through the center and to the toe as they move forward into the next step (especially Ismael, as on this page , And Julio Duplaa here), and some make contact first with their toes.
In your instructional video, you seem to step with your whole foot contacting the floor at about the same time, though it's hard to tell. So what would your advice be for those of us practicing our forward walk: heel first, toe first, or whole foot at the the same time?
Also, another thing that I get from the walking instructions, please correct me if I am wrong: the minimum separation (0) between the legs occurs on the weak beat, and the maximum on the strong beat. So it looks like that on the strong beat, the foot strikes the floor under a straight leg, but the weight is not 100% over it, it is actually in transit, pulsing forward, and is not 100% over the foot until the weak beat.
Last thing: are you planning to put up instructions for walking backwards/for women? Because I know several ladies who would LOVE that.
Good questions! I’m very glad you’re getting something out of the pages on technique:
1. Should you land flat, heel, or toe? It can be nice when you take several walking steps in corridas to hit right on the Front Balance point. It’s the most elegant walk, but doing it is like hitting the bullseye. I looked again at the demo, and I’m coming very close—but sometimes it’s hard to hit it perfectly in a milonga with different partners and different things going on. We’ll do a page on the “foot strike” soon, and demo different ways in more detail. For now, the heel is fine in many cases. I do it all the time, but the Front Balance point is a very efficient and balanced way to walk, because you land solidly on the bottom of your foot. So I would think about that when you practice.
2. Weight transfer question: 100% of your weight doesn’t go to the new stepping foot instantly—but it goes very quickly. If you look at the video, you’ll see that because my body is forward, it’s already moving quickly over the stepping leg as soon as it touches the floor. Another way to look at it is that you can see the weight begin to leave my back foot as soon as the front foot hits the floor. We’ll do a page on bad habits that will cover in detail what happens when you don’t do it.
3. Will we discuss women’s stepping technique? We’ve already discussed it some in Chapter 3. For now, I would just look at some of the best women in the videos. I think Alej is the best one to study because she's about as close to perfect as you can get. (I know I’m biased—but many people say the same. She’s considered one of the very best in the milongas.) Anyway, we plan to discuss women’s stepping technique in more detail as well. (And also men’s technique when walking backward.)
In chapter 4, page 5, you say: He knows that life in the old arrabal was (in the words of John Locke) “nasty, brutish, and short”. That phrase actually comes from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.
Muchas gracias. Thanks for taking the time to help. I know there are still mistakes lurking in those pages, so please let me know if you find any more.
Great Job and thank you for helping me decipher this dance of ours called Tango. After taking classes for about a year, I developed a strong feeling that there had to be more to Tango than prancing around, trying to copy what an instructor was trying to teach. So thank you for a lot of the answers to my questions provided in your writing about Tango. Do you know of any good instructional Videos that one can use to soak up/get what you describe as the "NUTS & BOLTS OF TANGO" in Chapter 6? It would help if as I study Chapter 6, I could visualized people doing it.One of the things that I have learned as I get ready to step, is that as I stand on my heels, I can lean forward until I feel my toes begin to engage. So I lean forward from my heels to that place just before the toes engage (I am still maintaining the integrity of my own axis) providing my own side of the "A" that you talk about. I am still a novice when it comes to Tango, but determined to make it mine, so please feel free to correct me at will.
Thanks for your questions. It's nice to know someone is interested in our new pages on technique.
Question 1: “Do you know of any good instructional Videos that one can use to soak up what you describe in Chapter 6? It would help if I could visualized people doing it."
Ans: I’ve looked at a lot of instructional videos over the years. Some of them display great technique (one that comes to mind is the one Pepito Avellaneda did just before he died), but I haven’t seen any that do a good job of breaking down and teaching the details of standing and stepping. Most simply demonstrate patterns and step combinations. [UPDATE: I just found a video by a fellow who seems to know what he's doing! It's a video of slow motion walking that you might find helpful. We just posted it at the end of Chapter 6.]
Question 2: “…as I get ready to step, I stand on my heels… and I can lean forward until I feel my toes engage. So I lean forward to that place just before my toes engage…”
Ans: It's great to know someone is thinking about these things! We just posted page 7 of Chapter Six. The next two pages will be up in a day or two, and I think you’ll find the beginning of your answer there. We’ll discuss working with your forward weight points, which is the preparation for stepping. Then we're going to post a section on using the compás, and after that, we’ll return and finish stepping technique in detail. We’ll also put the two halves of the embrace together. So please hang on—we'll try to clear it up for you over the next few months, and we'll include some video.
Weight on the heels: While our first exercises include finding a balance spot on your heels, that's really mostly for practice. It's not common to have your weight move onto your heels when you dance tango. It's done occasionally, but most tango is danced with the weight centered near the three dance points shown at the top of page 8. As far as your toes, I understand what you mean when you talk about your toes “engaging”. When I was trying to figure out how to stay forward, sometimes I would tense and curl my toes, like I was trying to grab onto the floor to hold myself back. For now, read through the pages we post in the next few days, and think about consciously relaxing your toes. Let your weight center on a spot just inside the ball of your foot, but no further forward. If your toes begin to tense up, you’re too far forward. You want to keep your chest just far enough forward to lead. Good posture, with chest up, and the shoulders down and back, should give you plenty of chest for leading without moving the center of your weight forward past the ball of your foot and onto your toes. As far as stepping, give us a month or so and let’s see if we can clear it up. And don’t hesitate to write again if you have any more questions after we post more.
Thank you so much for your website. I have been dancing Tango for two years and am totally dedicated to it (my wife does not understand). I started reading your website heavily about a month ago and it is helping me put together all the different styles and philosophies of the teachers that I have worked with. I hope that one day you will be able to put together a dvd of the great dancers in documentary form so we can have an archive of Tango to preserve and promote the “Tango Real” of the Milongueros.
One day I would like to be thought of as a Milonguero but I know that is a long way in the future and probably impossible for a North American Accountant who will never reside in Buenos Aires. Anyway, I love your website and hope that you keep adding to it often.
It's great to get such an enthusiastic email. While Alej and I are lucky to be able to dance every night in the heart of tango, we actually envy you! I remember that when I first began to windsurf, I was so enthusiastic that I couldn’t even sleep when I heard the wind blowing at night. All I could think about was getting better, so I could go out on the reef and sail the waves with the big boys. Then one of the professionals told me something. He said I shouldn't be impatient, because I was very lucky. I was learning new things every day, and dreaming about sailing, and I had so much to look forward to. He envied me because I was at the best time in windsurfing. He said even though I would get a lot better, I would never enjoy it more—and he was right! I eventually got where I wanted to be, but I never enjoyed it more than the first couple of years when I was trying to figure everything out.
In many ways, tango just keeps getting better and better as you progress. And with a little luck and a little work, you’ll discover incredible things... but don’t feel like you’re missing anything, because there's no better place in tango than where you are right now. “El tango te espera.” - Rick y Alej
I find that the dance floors vary. Some are sticky and others are super fast and slippery. Some of the ways that I have tried to cope with this is by having different pairs of shoes, smooth leather for the sticky floors and suede for the slippery floors. When one is traveling, however, it is sometimes impossible to know what to expect. Do the milongueros adjust their dancing to the floor condition and are there any helpful hints you can give me in this regard?
Thanks for an interesting question. Personally, I like very slippery shoes and floors, so I use a smooth hard leather sole, and often a leather heel also (although a rubber heel is more comfortable, and it works fine as long as the floor is slippery). For me, the slicker the better, because it's easier to pivot, and to step well. And it’s also easier on the ankles, knees, and legs. Of course you need to stay very centered over your feet. As far as sticky floors, I just try to avoid them.
The milongueros are a different story. They are legendary for being able to dance tango in anything and on anything. I’ve seen them dance tango on wet sticky patios in tennis shoes, and even barefoot on concrete at pool parties. And Alej says they're also able to dance on the cobblestones. They don't seem to make any adjustments—they just go. It doesn't seem to bother them. But normally in milongas, they use regular leather street shoes.
While I'm not familiar with many different types of dance shoes, Alej and I are intimately familiar with the different floors in BsAs. Just for the heck of it, let's talk about some of them:
El Beso: Wood. Slipperiest floor in town. People have fallen down on it, and it's so slick it bothers Alej. But for me, it's the best—if you can find room to dance. (In the U.S., the lawyers would have shut it down long ago.)
El Arranque: Tile. Nice baldosa floor, but it's that porous type of tile that absorbs moisture from the air. When it's humid, it can be very sticky, and then as the air conditioning kicks in, you can actually feel it begin to dry and get slick. People will say "Muy pesada la pista." (Very heavy floor), and then as it dries, you can actually see the dancing change.
Viejo Correo: Nice checkerboard baldosa floor tiles, same issue as El Arranque above.
Region Leonesa (Niño Bien): Good wooden floor, medium slick. When it's clean it's great, but for awhile the owners didn't seem to be cleaning it, and sometimes it was so dirty with spilled drinks that it was sticky.
Celia's: Great baldosa floor that doesn't absorb humidity. Maybe our favorite floor. Celia keeps it spotless, and Alej and I seem to fly on it.
Gricel: Absolutely the worst floor. The club is wildly popular, and the milongueros love it... but then they can dance on anything. It's a wood floor that used to have a lot of warped boards. I think they tried to repair it, but now it has cracks and gaps that can really disrupt your dancing.
Maipu 444: Very nice newer wooden floor. Medium slick.
Canning: Great slick wooden floor. It's the floor the milongueros love most. Maybe the best in town.
Sunderland: Tile. A little rough and sticky for my taste... but then it's a basketball court. Maybe too slippery for basketball, and too sticky for tango. But I'm a sensitive guy.
Our floor upstairs: It's a beautiful new wooden floor, but I was disappointed, because it ended up being a little sticky. They refinished it—but still sticky. I tried corn starch, which usually works—but still a little sticky. Then I discovered a thing called Blem. It's a brand of furniture polish they sell down here. I sprayed some on, and BINGO. We owned an ice skating rink! The floor guy who told us about it warned me against using it. It must have a little WD-40 in it or something. It was very dangerous—I couldn't even walk on it. Now, we use just a little, and then wipe almost all of it up with a dry mop, and the floor is perfect.
Glorias Argentinas: There is a door in the back of the dance salon that opens onto a soccer court. One night when it was incredibly crowded, they opened the doors so the overflow could dance on the court. It had a sort of non-slip sand finish over concrete, like they paint onto the deck of a ship or a windsurf board. When you planted your foot on it, it wouldn't slide or pivot at all. We were there with "El Gallego" (Jorge Garcia), and he asked Alej to dance on it. I had already tried and given up, and I really didn’t want Alej to do it because I was worried about her feet and knees. But she went ahead and danced a tanda, and although she didn’t like it she survived. I filmed it, and then a little later, I filmed Jorge when he gave a performance on the regular floor. When I looked at the film later, I could see that Alej was struggling on the sticky fútbol cancha, but Jorge danced exactly the same on the no-skid sand finish as he did on the slick floor of the milonga ten minutes later.
Of course, Jorge is one of the only true professional dancers in tango. He had a successful career outside of tango dancing in Nelida Lobato's stage shows in Buenos Aires, and he was quite well-known. (He was also a boxer, a milonguero, and Pugliese's body guard as well.) Interesting guy... and also a friend. He and Miguel Zotto may have the fastest feet in tango. We'll write more about him when we post some of his videos in Chapter 5.
I am Mekimdung from Hanoi, Vietnam. Last year, we asked you for the permission to translate your tangoandchaos pages into Vietnamese and post them on our website. Now, our website is running, and here is the index of to some of the Tangoandchaos pages in Vietnamese:
Thank you very much and hope to read more interested articles from you. Abrazos.
If one wanted to become proficient in Tango music, would he consider; 1. Taking one orchestra and studying all of its music from beginning to end, or 2. Studying the era and all the orchestras and working chronologically to present time. I'm still studying Spanish which should also help.
We are are teaching Tango in Munich, Germany (www.el-duende.de). Thank you very much for everything you did—what a great piece of work. It is the best description of tango in BsAs we have seen. The last 3 years we spent approximately 5 months in BsAs dancing every night and we miss it. We hope, you will be extending your site with more information. For us it would be very helpful if we could see somewhere when there is new information on your site, like a revision history. Again, thanks a lot.
Hi, Rick! —I just took a fast look and it seems you put new material on the site. That's good news. You know that we are big fans, however I caught a mistake during my visit. "Chatas del corralon" in the page about Angel Vargas "Tres Esquinas" means "horse-carts on the yard". A good piece of all the tangos of that time are about one of the popular "heroes" of those times: the "cuarteador" (from "cuarta" a rope). It's the guy that for a fee, came with his powerful horse to put out of the mud the cart or wagon that was stuck (like in "El Cuarteador de Barracas" from Troilo y Fiorentino). The legend says that often it was the same "cuarteadores" that kept some wet spots in the streets in order to have "customers". Hope you don't mind my always telling you about those things...
Un abrazo milonguero—Leo
I've enjoyed your web site. Great insight into a world I knew nothing about. I've heard that Orlando Paiva was a great dancer, but you didn't mention him. Was he considered a stage dancer or a milonguero?
We are a group of tango lovers in Hanoi, Vietnam. We are planning to build a website under the name of tangovietnam.net. This is aimed to be a non-profit website where tango lovers can find the most up-to-date information about tango, learn more about the origin and the art of tango, and get to know more tango people around the country and the world.
We have spent hours reading your articles on tangoandchaos.org and think it would be great if we can translate your entries into Vietnamese and share them with more people in our country. Therefore, I'm writing this email asking you for the permission to translate the contents of tangoandchaos into Vietnamese and post them on our website, which is under construction. If you want further information as to the contents and structures of our website, I can easily send you a sketch. We do hope to get your permission to translate the contents of tangoandchaos.
Huong Nguyen & Nguyen Le Huong
Lecturers - College of foreign languages - VNU