Walking (Part V)
The Secrets of the Step

hob-by: (n.) An activity or interest pursued outside one's regular occupation


Of all the things we do for fun, tango may be the most similar to our regular daily routine—and that creates a problem. No matter where we live or what we do, most of us spend the day walking around and pausing—so who wants to have a hobby that essentially involves... walking and pausing? This, I think, is the source of the almost irresistible urge many people have to mess with tango. Whether it’s out of ignorance, or arrogance, or simply for profit, there is a large and prominent group of people who want to re-invent tango by hanging ornaments on it.

But like it or not, tango is what it is... and the real tango isn't for everybody. It takes a lot of time, work, and patience to understand it. Those who put in the time and effort, will eventually discover that the walking and pausing of real tango is far from simple—it's as different from everyday walking and pausing as swimming is from tennis. And a lucky few, with enough patience and passion (and a little help), may even find the tango that Troilo spoke of when he said, "El tango te espera."

So let's get to work. Good tango is in the details—so let's spend some more time working on a simple part of tango that most instructors rarely even discuss. We're going to talk about the heart of tango technique: how the foot strikes the floor, and stepping in the compás.

Kick It


You may have noticed that the walking and pausing exercise on the last page wasn’t that easy. In fact, doing the basic walk without pausing isn't easy either. If you really understand it, and begin to look around the milongas, you’ll look a long time before you find someone who does it well. One trouble spot is the place where the foot contacts the floor. Remember, the goal is to express the compás as perfectly as possible with our bodies, which in this case means marking the strong beat of the compás with the foot. This is much more difficult than it seems at first... and like much of the other material in this chapter, I don't think it's ever been discussed before.

Our first job is to make the foot strike the floor crisply, and cleanly—but also smoothly. Just like an athlete kicking a soccer ball, to have a chance at success, we need to set up correctly. So make sure you have all of the basics we have discussed up to this point. (It's best to review them and practice them a lot, because these aren't things you can learn in a few weeks—or even a few months.)

Think about kicking a ball. The way to strike a soccer ball with power is to relax the foot and ankle, and then quickly straighten the leg, so that the foot snaps forward. Let's practice it. Get tall, and balanced on one Front Balance point, raise the other knee a little, relax your foot and ankle, and then pop your foot out there. Don't hurt yourself—do it gently, but do it quickly and sharply, and make sure your knee extends all the way. It should look like you're kicking a nuevo-stage dancer out of a milonga:


Practicing the leg-snap:  It's often used in BsAs to clear tango nuevo dancers out of milongas.

Take some time to get used to this motion. Try to do it sharply, without letting any movement transfer to rest of your body. For now, let's just call it a leg-snap. Our objective will be to use it for something quite difficult. We want to make three things happen simultaneously. The first two are: To snap our leg straight at exactly the same time that the tipping forward of our body brings our foot into contact with the floor. Or more specifically, when the Front Balance point of our foot contacts the floor. Like a pilot looking for a perfect landing, we are looking for the perfect foot strike. We want to snap our leg straight, and have our foot strike the floor at the same time.

But not only must we make the leg snap, and straighten, just as our foot strikes the floor—we must also do it exactly on the strong beat of the compás. Leg-snap, floor contact, and the strong beat of the music must all coincide. A lot of things can go wrong, so before we do it right, let's look at a couple of common mistakes :


An early snap: Snapping the leg too early results in the foot floating and dropping onto the floor.

In the video above, the foot has come in a little high, floated above the floor, and then dropped down to make contact. Another way to look at it is that the leg-snap was too early. This can cause the toes to contact the floor first, ahead of the Front Balance point. Now, let's bring in the compás:


We've added a tick to this video to show the problem:  How are we marking the compás?
Are we marking it with the leg-snap, or when the toes contact the floor, or when
the Front Balance point touches—or does it fall somewhere in between?

This kind of stepping is common in the milongas, especially when men take the first step to walk along the left or right of the woman. If you don't tip forward enough to lead with the chest, the upper body gets held back just a little. This causes your foot to hang out there above the floor for a split second. It gives your tango a timid look—like testing the water temperature with your toes before diving in.

Now let's look at the opposite situation. This time, the leg-snap comes too late... or maybe the floor arrives too early, depending on how you look at it:


Here, the leg snap is completed late, so the foot dives into the floor too early, and "skates".

In the video above, we came in a little low, and drove our foot into the floor before finishing the leg-snap. This can cause the foot to slide, or "skate" a little if the floor is slick, or it may jerk to a quick stop if it stabs into a sticky surface. This kind of foot strike is associated with another bad habit, because if your foot hits too early, that means your knee is still slightly bent at floor contact. In the milongas they call this "dancing on your knees". There are some well-known stage dancers who are notorious for doing it.

Dancing this way puts a bit of jerking or bouncing in your step that your partner will feel. But the real problem it creates is with the compás. What kind of signal are you sending your partner? Exactly when are you marking the compás? Is it when leg snaps above the floor, or as the foot drops? Is it when the toes hit the floor, or when the Front Balance point hits? In the case above, are we marking the beat when the foot first dives in and starts sliding—or when it stops?

Finally, let's look at the walking demo from page 12 again, to see if we can get a confluence of leg-snap, foot strike, and compás:


Getting it right:  The tick on the soundtrack marks the strong beat of the compás. This is
how it looks when both the 'foot-snap', and the 'floor-strike' are right on the compás.

Adding the little tick sound files to this video drove me crazy. I was trying to match them to the wave graph on the sound track by listening to the music, but after about half an hour I gave up. There was no way I could get them just right. Then, I came at it from the other direction. I ignored the wave graph and the music, and just looked for the frame in the video where I could clearly see my foot strike the floor. Then I attached the tick sound to that frame. There are 30 frames per second, and I picked those where the leg-snap and the floor contact came together. Afterwards, I counted the frames between each foot strike, and found there were the same number between each one—so the leg-snap, the floor strike, and the strong beat in this video are all within 1/30th of a second of each other. I'm pretty picky, but all in all, that's about as close as you need to get.


On page 14 in chapter six, you perform nice stepping. After your feet contact the ground exactly with the compás there is this sliding effect. Is your partner supposed to do the same effect when you dance together?    ;-)
- Frank Seifarth (Berlin)  October 3, 2008

I see by the smile that it’s probably not a serious question, but I’d like to answer it anyway. The reason I’m sliding is that I used too much BlemBlem is a furniture polish they sell in Argentina, and if you spray too much on the floor (which I did), you'll slide at the finish of the step.

To answer your question, both the man’s and the woman’s foot hit at the same time. The man lands more or less on a flat foot, but the woman contacts the floor with the front of her foot, and then rolls backwards down onto her heel—so if the man’s foot slides a bit, the woman probably wouldn’t even know it. It happens as she’s rolling down onto her heel, and all she should feel is the man’s chest continuing forward.

Slippery floors can be a little spooky for women in high heels, but I like them because it’s easier to walk and pivot. I hate the feeling of having my foot come to a jolting stop on a sticky floor. It’s like putting a small brake on the forward momentum of each step, and pivoting can be almost painful, because the foot wants to stay planted, and the twisting force moves up into the ankles and knees.  [Here's a discussion about some of the dance floors in BsAs.]

A slippery floor will often reveal flaws in step technique. One problem is bending the leg and pushing off hard into the step. If you do it on a slippery floor, your foot will want to slide back out from under you as you push, and this can be dangerous. The way to avoid it is to initiate each step by tipping in the direction you want to go, and let the weight of your upper body carry your partner along. If it feels like your supporting foot wants to slip out from under you as you begin a step on a slippery dance floor, it's a good indication that you're not efficiently using the weight of the upper body to begin the step.

Another problem that can show up on slippery floors is not staying centered laterally—that is, not placing one foot directly in front of (or behind) the other. If you don't walk with one foot directly in front of the other, you'll get a slight rocking from side to side. On a slippery floor, it can feel unstable, as if your foot wants to slide out to the side.

A man may be able to compensate for the instability he causes, but it's much worse for the woman who has to dance with him. She probably won't notice if the man's foot slides a little in the direction of travel as he finishes his step, but she will notice slipping and lurching at the beginning of the step. And any rocking from side to side will make her feel very uncomfortable. Wearing high heels on a slippery floor, and trying to follow a man who's unsteady on his feet is not a good place to be.